Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe’s triple-double fuels Lakers high-powered offense in win over Rockets


LOS ANGELES — Mike D’Antoni was forced to postpone his debut as Lakers head coach, opting instead to wait a few more days after being talked out of coaching Sunday night’s game by the team’s training staff.

But you didn’t need to see D’Antoni in a suit on the sidelines to know that he had his fingerprints all over this one — it was evident from the very start.

The Lakers had 40 points by the end of the first quarter, Kobe Bryant finished with a triple-double, and the offense was everything their fans could ask for in a 119-108 destruction of the Houston Rockets.

Bryant notched the 18th triple-double of his career by finishing with 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists, but downplayed the statistical achievement afterward.

“I’m a scorer, I’m not a triple-double kind of player,” he said. “But it’s cool when it happens.”

L.A. was in blowout mode from the opening tip, and there were plenty of highlights on the way to gaining an 11-point lead by the end of the first quarter, one in which the Lakers as a team shot a ridiculous 73.9 percent.

To say that the offense was clicking would be an understatement. Bryant initiated plenty of high pick-and-rolls that resulted in good looks inside and out, the three-point shooting was solid at 45 percent, and the team pushed the tempo to play at a quicker pace which kept the defense on its heels and allowed for high-percentage shots.

D’Antoni-style basketball, at its finest.

The turnaround has seemed to come relatively quickly for these Lakers, after firing head coach Mike Brown just five games into the season once the team suffered through a 1-4 start. Since Bernie Bickerstaff has taken command on an interim basis, the team has gone 4-1 to get back to .500, but he said there were some signs that this might be coming.

“They were in the process,” Bickerstaff said. “If you go back to the day before we played [that first game he coached against Golden State], we talked about how we were prepared to play that game. We had one of the best practices that we’ve had. The progress from that point, I think the guys have been playing, and when you have some success your confidence goes up and you believe in certain things.”

It’s worth wondering how much of this recent success is due to D’Antoni’s system, versus just letting some of the best players in the world play the game the way they know how — intelligently, fluidly, and with few restrictions. The players seem to think it’s been a combination of the two so far.

“We’re just picking apart the defense,” Bryant said. “We’re putting the defense in predicaments where they have to choose, and we’re making them pay.”

Dwight Howard echoed the sentiment.

“We’re doing D’Antoni’s offense, but we’re just playing at the same time,” he said.

Howard finished with 28 points, 13 rebounds, and three blocked shots. He looked every bit the beast the Lakers hoped they’d be getting when they traded for him, but even after putting together a dominant performance like this one, Howard says he’s still not yet at 100 percent.

“No, I’m not there,” he said. “But I’m happy with the progress, I’m happy with my teammates finding me in great spots to score, and I’m just trying to have fun and play as hard as I can.”

If there’s a way to play harder offensively than the Lakers did as a team on this night, the rest of the league will be running for cover. Steve Nash will return at some point, which will only make things that much easier offensively, and that much more ridiculous for opposing defenses to have to deal with on a nightly basis.

“We just want to continue to roll, just continue to improve on what we’re doing, and continue to improve our execution,” Bryant said.

Presumably, there will be an additional boost from the full-time presence of Mike D’Antoni patrolling the sidelines. But whether that debut comes in the Lakers next game or the game after, it hardly matters. It’s very clear that D’Antoni and the pieces of his system are already firmly in place.

51 Questions: Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

Michael Malone
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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

One incident sums up how bad things had gotten in Denver under the Brian Shaw regime — breaking a fourth-quarter huddle in the final game of February, Nuggets players chanted “1-2-3-six weeks!”

The players didn’t like the coach, some of them didn’t like each other, and with six weeks and 24 games left in the season they had checked out. The young players (and some of the veterans) partied so much Shaw canceled shootarounds because guys couldn’t roll in for them in the morning. Shaw had lost the team long before when he’d tried to fit square pegs into the triangle holes of his offense, and it spiraled out of control from there. The culture in Denver was broken.

Mike Malone was brought in to repair that culture.

The Jeff Van Gundy disciple has shown he can do that before. Malone was starting to build something in Sacramento (they started last season 9-6 before DeMarcus Cousins got sick), where he was asked to repair a franchise culture that by the end of the Maloof era was something akin to the Lord of the Flies. Malone also turned out to be the one coach who had gotten through to Cousins. Even with his defensive mindset and Cousins in the paint, Malone had the Kings playing at the eighth-fastest pace in the league in pace, but the Kings’ owner wanted to play faster (and maybe didn’t want to miss out on the chance to hire George Karl), so Malone got sacked.

The question becomes, is Malone alone going to turn things around in Denver and bring them back to relevance?

Not alone, and not just in one season, but he will get them on the right track.

The first step to show management was behind Malone was the trading of Ty Lawson. No doubt when focused Lawson is a quality point guard (as Houston likely benefits from this season), but he was part of the problem in the end in Denver, to the point of picking up two DUIs in six months (he checked into a rehab facility after the second one). He had mentally checked out and his example was an issue the Nuggets needed to change.

That turns the keys for the offense over to rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who impressed a lot of people at Summer League after bailing on SMU to play in China last season. But he’s still a rookie with a long way to go — as the 15 turnovers in his first two preseason games attest. Things that worked in China and Summer League don’t fly against an NBA defense.

With Mudiay at the point and a team that plays half its games at high altitude, Monroe wants to take advantage of that and get out and run. Expect the Nuggets to get back to their traditional up-tempo games, but with some things Malone loves to run (such as the Rick Adelman corner action).

But for Malone, all things — including good transition basketball — starts with defense. You have to get stops and steals to run well, and the Nuggets were 26th in the league in defensive rating last season (105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). In the first two Nuggets preseason games, that was the Nuggets focus (with mixed results).

Malone’s challenge starts with getting Kenneth Faried to buy in and play as hard on defense as he does on offense — something Faried has never done. Faried has been a defensive minus since he entered the NBA and that becomes one of Malone’s first major projects (even if it’s just to boost Faried’s trade value). Faried, who clashed with Shaw over his role, has said he’s felt energized under Malone, now the coach just has to steer that energy to the defensive end of the court.

Malone will be searching for the right center to put next to Faried, and I expect that will mean a lot of Jusuf Nurkic (who is young and shows it at times). But also expect to see some small-ball lineups with Faried at the five. Something like Mudiay, Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Faried. A lineup with some athleticism and shooting that could put up points, but would they get any stops? If Gary Harris slots in for Foye, does that help the defense (Harris is guy Nuggets fans may see more and more of as the season goes on).

The roster is a work in progress, and if you were to bet on the Nuggets doing one thing this season, it should be making trades. Things are going to change.

There are nice pieces on the Nuggets, but not enough of them and with some real questions about how it all fits together. This is not a playoff team this season, not in the West.

But it’s a team that Malone could have playing a lot better late in the season than at the beginning, once some of those questions start to be answered, and the young players gain experience. That should be the goal in Denver. Begin to change the culture, get buy-in on the system, get guys playing hard again rather than dreaming of Cancun vacations by February. Change can be incremental, but Malone will start the change.

Then in a couple of years, you’ve got the team you want.

Well, so long as the Nuggets ownership doesn’t get impatient and decide it needs to change directions again.

Another Pelicans center down: Omer Asik out three weeks

Omer Asik, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver
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The Pelicans will have to play Anthony Davis at center now.

With backup center Alexis Ajinca already sidelined, starting center Omer Asik suffered his own injury.

Pelicans release:

The New Orleans Pelicans announced today that center Omer Asik is expected to miss the next three weeks with a right calf strain. The injury occurred during Wednesday’s practice.

If that three-week timeline is firm, Asik would miss two regular season games – at Warriors and at Trail Blazers.

Davis figured to be the most natural fit at center in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo scheme. What happens if the Pelicans excel with him there and then stumble once Asik and Ajinca return? Because New Orleans had Bird Rights for Asik and Ajinca, re-signing them made some sense. And once they’re re-signed, Gentry must find a role for them. But that could get harder if it becomes obvious the team is best with Davis at center.

As long as Asik and Ajinca are out, Kendrick Perkins probably moves into the rotation. Jeff Adrien could also see minutes at center. Suddenly, Adrien, on an unguaranteed contract, has a much better chance of making the regular-season roster. Ryan Anderson probably plays more at power forward, too, with Davis logging more time at center.