The Mike D'Antoni era officially commenced on Tuesday, November 20, 2012.
Mark it down. It's an important date in basketball annals, particularly in Los Angeles, and it will ultimately be judged sometime in June 2013. Depending upon who wins the NBA Finals, this date will either mark a staggering blow to a franchise that took a sharp left turn, or it will mark a stamp of approval for Jim Buss and his desire to avoid Phil Jackson at all costs. Simply put, it's championship or bust, and D'Antoni and his coaching style will either be glorified or condemned.
After endless speculation regarding his unexpected hire over the revered Jackson, and a full nine days after he was chosen to be the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, D'Antoni was able to summon the necessary vigor — with the help of Vicodon — to sit on the sideline and act as head coach as the Lakers faced the Brooklyn Nets in Staples Center.
Although the Lakers have been partially running D'Antoni's system under interim head coach — and the Lakers all-time winningest coach, percentage wise — Bernie Bickerstaff, that really doesn't count. Six days after leading his first practice with the Lakers, D'Antoni was able to get near the action as he sat in Jackson's seat, both figuratively and literally — D'Antoni will be sitting on Jackson's infamous "special chair" while he recovers from knee surgery. The sting of D'Antoni's hire over Jackson isn't going away any time soon, but at least Lakers fans can finally see their new coach in action.
So, how did the Lakers do in D'Antoni's first game?
Well, the game was a tale of two halves.
The first 24 minutes resembled a D'Antoni tempo as the Lakers shot 23-41 (56%) from the field, 4-13 (31%) from deep, and 6-11 (55%) from the free throw line.
This up and down pace resembles a typical D'Antoni led team. The Lakers zipped the ball around with excellent passing and took numerous open shots en route to pouring in 56 points. The Lakers struggled with the three ball, which is to be expected with this roster, but their attempts were in line with D'Antoni's philosophy. The Lakers also struggled to knock down free throws, as Dwight Howard shot 3-5, Pau Gasol shot 2-4, and Metta World Peace shot 1-2. Surprisingly, Kobe Bryant didn't attempt any free throws — he did his damage with jumpers, hitting five straight to close the first quarter. D'Antoni's teams usually lead the league in free throw percentage, but not attempts. This team may reverse those statistics due to Howard, however, in the first half, the Lakers were not as aggressive attacking the rim as they should be.
Also typical of a D'Antoni led team, the Lakers acted as sieves defensively and allowed the Nets to pour in 57 points. The Nets torched the Lakers in the second quarter with 34 points. In particular, the Lakers allowed Brook Lopez to play like a super duper star as he poured in 17 points on 8-12 shooting. Deron Williams also torched the Lakers as he scored 18 points on 4-7 shooting, 3-4 from deep, while dishing out five assists.
All in all, the first half was exciting. Both teams got out and ran, and both teams had no qualms about shooting.
The final 24 minutes were much different.
The second half turned into an ugly defensive slugfest full of missed shots and missed free throws. In the second half the Lakers shot an abysmal 12-32 (38%), including 2-8 (25%) from deep, and an awful 13-26 (50%) from the free throw line.
The fourth quarter was especially ugly for both squads. The Lakers shot 3-12 (25%) from the field, 1-3 (33%) from deep, and 12-22 (55%) from the free throw line. The Nets weren't much better, as they shot 7-20 (35%) from the field, 0-5 from deep, and 3-3 from the line. The Lakers finished with 19 points in the quarter compared to 17 from the Nets.
Halting any momentum to the game was Nets coach Avery Johnson and his decision to adopt a "Hack-a-Howard" philosophy early in the final quarter. Howard struggled mightily as he shot 3-10 from the line. At first, fans at Staples Center began to boo as Howard missed five straight at the line. But, eventually Howard garnered loud cheers as he sank one out of two during his final two trips to the line. Howard's final trip to the charity stripe occurred just before the four minute mark. All it took was Howard to hit two out of four for Johnson to halt the intentional foul strategy.
Surprisingly, the Lakers were able to dig in and weather Howard's free throw woes with exceptional defense. As Howard struggled, the Nets were only able to build a five point lead. Once World Peace knocked down the Lakers first field goal of the quarter, a three pointer at the 4:39 mark that cut the score to 82-84, the Lakers were able to take control. World Peace was so pumped about his shot from the far side that he enthusiastically rubbed his hands all over Johnson's hair in a playful manner before running back down the court.
Following World Peace's shot, Bryant closed the game. At first, it seemed like he contracted Howard's woes as he shot an uncharacteristic 2-4 from the line to start the quarter. However, then Bryant turned it on.
First, he set up a beautiful play that led to a Howard dunk. Bryant drove the lane and kicked out to Gasol at the top of the key. Then he received a return pass at the near top. As Bryant rose up from deep, two Nets rushed him, including Gasol's man, so he passed to Gasol midshot. Gasol caught the pass in the lane and sent a lob up to Howard for an alley oop dunk. This beautiful sequence from the stars on the court tied the score up at 86-86.
Then, Bryant summoned his inner Magic Johnson as he hit a running hook shot. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is obviously the godfather of the hook shot, but I don't think Kareem ever beat his man off the dribble from the three point line and then went into his patented shot. From the near wing, Bryant used a hesitation dribble to freeze up his defender, Joe Johnson. Then Bryant drove right, and once he neared the box in the lane, he elevated and hit a beautiful running skyhook to give the Lakers an 89-86 advantage.
From there, Bryant iced the game with six straight free throws to give the Lakers a 95-90 victory.
Bryant's second set of free throws were particularly interesting. After Gasol nearly threw the game away with a ridiculous jump ball after being trapped just past half court, Bryant gave his greatest Calvin Johnson impersonation as he outleaped two defenders just past midcourt to come down with the ball. With a one point lead, and four seconds remaining in the game, Bryant stepped up to the line. After watching Bryant sink the first shot, Gerald Wallace engaged in a war of words with Bryant in an effort to faze him. With the biggest free throw of the game on the line, Bryant cooly responded to Wallace as the two traded barbs for nearly 20 seconds. After giving Wallace on last incredulous look, Bryant focused on the rim and sank the shot. As he backpedaled away from the line, Bryant sent Wallace one last smirk.
Following that, Williams missed a potential game tying three, and Bryant stepped up to the line one last time. With just .2 left on the clock, the game was decided. As Bryant stood at the line, Wallace engaged in more talk. Bryant sank both to end the game.
Following the game, Wallace was asked about the war of words. Regarding the crucial second set of free throws, Wallace stated, "I was trying to get him to close his eyes to shoot." A la Michael Jordan, Bryant almost took the bait. Wallace continued, "I had to make a big bet, so I just told him to shoot the free throws." We'll never know if Bryant would have actually risked a game on such a challenge, but it is interesting to know that parameters were discussed. Even more interesting, it was Wallace who was unwilling to take such a risk. Imagine the scrutiny if Bryant had done such a thing and missed! If Bryant was willing to risk a loss, I wonder what he demanded from Wallace? It must have been quite substantial.
Whatever the case, there are some noteworthy items to take away from this game.
Firstly, D'Antoni won his opening game behind a solid defensive effort. Surprising to say the least considering D'Antoni's reputation. After a hot start, Lopez went 3-6 and scored just seven points in the second half. Williams fared even worse in the final 24 minutes, going 2-10, 0-5 from deep, for four points and five assists. Although the offense stalled, the Lakers showed that they can get it done defensively if necessary. This is a good sign, and it may be relied upon more than most would have expected.
Secondly, D'Antoni is going to love having Bryant as a closer. The man has been through it all, he doesn't freeze up, and he loves the pressure. For the first time in his coaching career, D'Antoni has a bonafide two guard to work with. Joe Johnson was pretty good in his Phoenix days, but Bryant is at an entirely different level.
Thirdly, the Lakers need to work on the three ball, 6-21 (29%) won't get it done. However, World Peace, the man who will always be left open on the weak side, actually turned in a great performance by shooting 4-9 (44%) from deep. If World Peace can hover around 37-42% from deep this season, the Lakers starting five will thrive in D'Antoni's system. Simply put, World Peace is the x-factor. His ability to space the floor will be crucial for the Lakers.
Fourthly, will Howard's struggles at the line truly hinder the offense? D'Antoni has never had a key contributor shoot so poorly from the charity stripe. In fact, D'Antoni's worst regular free throw shooter was Amare Stoudemire, and he shot a respectable 73%. Howard is shooting 48% from the line this season, yet D'Antoni doesn't seem to mind. After delivering an "Umm" that turned into a weird groan/ponder when asked about Howard's struggles at the line during the post game press conference, D'Antoni stated "He's making one of two, so that's one point per possession, that's pretty good basketball, especially down the stretch. That's fine, if they want to do that, that's great, I got no problem."
Although I disagree with D'Antoni's claim, there's nothing that he can really say here. Taking Howard off the floor is not the solution, even late in games, so living with his inconsistency is necessary because he is too valuable a commodity defensively and on the boards to be sitting on the bench. However, for a team that wants to increase possessions with uptempo play, this can become a problem. If the Lakers have more opportunities, that means that the opposing team will also gain more opportunities. So if the Lakers are consistently coming up with just one point at the line, opposing teams that maximize their possessions can potentially score two or three points per possession.
For example, Howard finished this game 7-19 at the line, marking 10 separate trips to the charity stripe. By coming up with just seven points, an opposing team can potentially score anywhere from 20-30 points within that same frame. Obviously, these numbers represent stark contrasts of failure versus excellence, but the potential is there, and great teams have a knack for reaching that full potential. This is going to be a recurring problem all season long, and it will be interesting to see how the Lakers overcome such a disadvantage.
Overall, it's great to see the Lakers pull out the win. This team will look to improve with every game, and with Steve Nash still injured, this team won't near it's full potential until sometime after the All-Star break. Until then, D'Antoni will look to pile up the wins in any way that he can. In the end, it's all about the team's play from May to June. Those months will represent the playoffs, and if D'Antoni can deliver another championship to Los Angeles, no one will question his hiring.
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