LOS ANGELES – The Lakers’ final game of the Bernie Bickerstaff era was a preview of the future under new head coach Mike D’Antoni.
It wasn’t a masterpiece by any means, with the Lakers defense allowing the Phoenix Suns to shoot 48.9 percent and score 102 points. However, the offense was, relatively, a thing of beauty, especially compared with the first 16 games of this NBA season — eight losses in the preseason and a 3-5 record prior to Friday night’s game.
The Lakers (4-5) ran the ball, put a ton of pressure on the Suns’ defense and used the pick and roll whenever it was open to them, coming away with a 114-102 victory. At the end of three quarters, Los Angeles had already scored 92 points — more points than they were able to score in three entire regular-season games and six of eight exhibition games.
None of the players would say the team is definitely back on the right track or that D’Antoni’s system was starting to take hold. There were a lot of satisfied smiles in the locker room after the game, though.
“We just made shots tonight,” said Dwight Howard, who finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds. “Metta (World Peace) was on fire, Kobe (Bryant) hit some tough shots and we got to the free-throw line a lot. When we do that, we win.
“It’s all going to click for us. We just have to keep talking to each other and we’ll get better.”
Bryant torched the Suns for 31 points and 6 rebounds and admitted that he’s eager for D’Antoni to take the team over for Saturday’s practice and the game against Houston on Sunday night at Staples Center.
“I’m excited about getting to work,” said Kobe, who has often said that D’Antoni was his favorite player when he was growing up. “I’m happy for him to be on the sidelines. Going through rehab on the knee is always a tough process, and I’ll be excited for us and for him, being able to get back to what he does best.”
Bryant said that there were actually some elements of D’Antoni’s system used by the Lakers in the victory.
“His offense,” said Bryant, “is for us to read each other and kind of go out there and play on the fly. The things that he wants to put in will give us some framework and some opportunities. For the most part, though, he just wants us to go out there and play.
“We want to try and attack the clock early, so then we can go through a sequence of options to move the ball and space the floor. We don’t want to start possessions with 16 seconds left on the clock and missing some opportunities.
“There’s really no rules, no routes guys have to stop and think about. It’s pretty simple. You have an open shot, you shoot it. If you have a lane, you drive it. You pass it if you have neither. You try to push the ball, try to catch the defense on its heels and get the easy basket.”
1. Bickerstaff did an outstanding job after Mike Brown’s firing. The Lakers went 3-1, barely losing to San Antonio 84-82 when Daniel Green hit a game-winning shot with nine seconds left Tuesday night. When the veteran of four decades in the NBA was told the job was his until a new coach was hired, he recognized that this was a team that was frazzled mentally, and basically rolled the ball on the floor and told them to “play basketball.” His non-pressure approach after six weeks of the Lakers trying to learn the complicated Princeton offense was the perfect elixir for a team searching for it’s identity. This is a team with many athletes — some older but still very athletic. They needed to be able to show their athleticism as well as their basketball-playing ability, and that wasn’t happening with the Princeton. Bickerstaff allowed them to grow, but doesn’t want to take a lot of credit. He said after the win over Phoenix: “When it’s all said and done, I thought it would be a footnote, history that my grandkids could talk about. But it’s all good and all fun.” If the Lakers end up winning a title this year, a lot of recognition and praise should be headed Bickerstaff’s way.
2. It didn’t appear that the Princeton offense was the right fit for this team, but when Steve Nash fractured his leg in the second game of the season, any chance for success went to the sidelines with him. The offense relies on a lot of passing and deliberately moving the ball until someone has an open shot. There were, however, many variations made to fit Nash’s style of play, and with him likely to be sidelined for at least a month, it meant a reboot when he returned and would have probably been too much to overcome.
3. Antawn Jamison is still struggling and he’s got to get back to his dynamic offensive production in order to help the Lakers as the sixth man he was thought to be when he signed with the team. Look for a breakout shortly. D’Antoni’s system is perfect for a player whose game is based almost solely on his offensive contributions, and Jamison fits that description. A 19.5 ppg career scorer over 14 seasons, he’s barely averaging a fifth of that so far as a Laker. But if anyone will be reborn with D’Antoni coaching, it will be the former North Carolina star. “His style of offense is going to benefit the makeup of this team,” Jamison said. “One hundred and ten points is expected out of us every night on the offensive end, and we need to crisp some things up. But it’s better because it isn’t as detail-oriented as the offense were were running earlier this season. There was no need for Dwight to be making outlet passes of handoffs. He needs to be down low, in the paint and pick-and-rolls. Same with Pau (Gasol). Some people say we have some old legs here, but we can still get up and down the floor, put pressure on the defense and have some fun.”
4. Seems like some reporters weren’t alone in blaming team VP Jim Buss for the upheaval the team has gone through recently. Magic Johnson’s criticism of Mike Brown’s hiring, then D’Antoni’s getting the job instead of Phil Jackson isn’t going over too well with some members of the organization who say they can’t understand why the Lakers great is tearing into Buss. And especially when you think that for the moves to be made, owner Jerry Buss had to sign off — if not encourage them. Nothing significant happens with the Lakers unless the good doctor gives his OK.
5. Jim Buss does need to put himself out in the public a little more and let the fans know who he is. While his dad isn’t Mark Cuban in terms of media access, he would meet on the record with reporters a few times a year, and many times he’d stay and play cards, have a few drinks and hold court off the record. This is the way trust is built. Jim has learned a lot from his dad about the inner workings of a basketball team and how to run the Lakers. Now he needs to take it a step further to give himself a chance to avoid the type of hammering he’s taken over the past two weeks.