EL SEGUNDO, CA — It must be tough for a professional basketball coach to admit to the world that an opponent can’t be stopped. Has to be even harder to try and figure out how then to stop the unstoppable.
That’s the dilemma Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni was facing early Monday afternoon as his team wrapped up practice before boarding a charter flight to Oklahoma City. Tuesday night the Lakers meet the Thunder – the polar opposite of each other as basketball teams.
OKC is faster, quicker and more explosive than L.A., so D’Antoni and his staff will go down to the wire trying to come up with a game plan to stop Kevin Durant and the rest of the Thunder. The odds of that, however, are not in favor of the older, slower and far less explosive Lakers.
“This is definitely a case of ‘pick your poison’ when it comes to Durant and Russell (Westbrook),” D’Antoni lamented. “So what you have to do is basically slow down their entire team by forgetting about offensive rebounds and breaking back on defense as soon as we shoot the ball. Hopefully we’ll be really efficient with our offense, but if not, we’ll likely have Dwight (Howard) as the one guy hitting the boards on both ends, and everyone else getting back in transition.”
Howard accepts that he’s the key to making the strategy work, and says he’s up for the challenge.
“I just gotta crash the boards,” Howard said confidently, also mentioning that his surgically repaired back is getting better daily and allowing him to take control of the paint on a more consistent basis.
“If we slow it down and play the way we want to play, we should win the game. We have to dictate the tempo of the game.
“The Thunder has Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, then a bunch of guys who can come off the bench and score, so they’re going to want to get out and run – and that’s definitely not in our favor. We’re not a run-and-gun team, so the best way to play those guys is to make them play in a half-court offense.”
If the Lakers come away with a victory at OKC, they will have a 31-30 record – the first time they’ve been above .500 since beating Brooklyn to improve to 6-5 in D’Antoni’s debut on November 20. It’s also the only time this season that they’ve had more wins than losses, and Howard says perseverance is the key to rebounding from a terrible start and a season-worst 17-25 mark after a loss to the Bulls in Chicago on January 21.
“We’ve stayed positive (through) everything that has happened,” said the three-time Defensive Player of the Year about his team struggles on and off the court. “We haven’t lost sight of our goal – make the playoffs and win a championship. That’s all we talk about. That’s what keeps us motivated.
“We’ve stayed focused on playing one game at a time, we’ve stuck together and we’ve got each other’s backs now. For us to do what we set out to do this season, we have to continue to support each other.”
The man who’s probably taken more heat than anyone for the Lakers’ struggles agrees with his center.
“No question,” said D’Antoni, now 25-25 as Lakers head coach. “We had to eventually get to the point that we sacrificed for the good of the team – for the good of each other – whether the player liked it or not. It wasn’t easy to get there, but we did.
“Now the season comes down to the last (22) games, and we have to try to win every game we play just to get into the playoffs, starting with the game against Oklahoma City.
“We know we have the ability to beat any team we play. It’s just a matter of doing it. No excuses, no taking a game off. If we win, things will be fine.”