Mike D’Antoni has a long way to go before his stint as Lakers head coach will be viewed as anything close to a success. But he picked his motivational spot wisely, calling Sunday’s game against the Cavaliers essentially a must-win, and a starting point for L.A. to begin to get its miserable season back on track and pointed in the right direction.
For a single night, against a substandard opponent, the Lakers responded to the challenge. They came out focused and aggressive from the very start, and used a 37-point first quarter as a launching pad for an easy 113-93 victory, the team’s first since Dec. 28 to snap a six-game losing streak.
D’Antoni’s message to his team after Friday night’s loss to the Thunder was simple.
“I told the team, the biggest thing is our season starts Sunday,” he said. “We’ve got to make a run. We’ve got one shot at it, and everybody needs to get ready mentally and physically.”
The team was as focused mentally as we’ve seen in weeks, but physically wasn’t all the way there just yet. Pau Gasol missed his fourth straight game, still not medically cleared to return after suffering a concussion a week ago against Denver.
Dwight Howard was back, however, after missing the last three games with a shoulder injury. His presence was felt immediately, as he piled up 10 points and five rebounds in just over eight minutes of action in the first quarter, against a Cavaliers team missing the injured Anderson Varejao and having no one else on its roster remotely capable of slowing him. He ended up finishing with a dominant 22 points and 14 rebounds.
Kobe Bryant had 12 of his 23 points in the opening frame to go along with five assists, and he and Howard combined to go 8-of-11 from the field in that first quarter, while the Lakers defensively held their opponent to just over 36 percent shooting.
L.A. finished the night shooting 58 percent as a team, including hitting 13 of its 25 attempts from three-point distance, while holding Cleveland to just over 41 percent.
The thing that was most impressive about the Lakers performance on this night wasn’t necessarily the win over a far less-talented opponent. It was the way they came out from the opening tip and took care of business with an efficiency and effectiveness we’ve seen only in flashes that was the difference. The offense was executed with purpose, the ball moved fluidly to find the open man, and all five players on the floor were active and engaged defensively.
It doesn’t seem so impossible on a night like this one when it all comes together.
The Lakers lead didn’t dip below double digits the entire second half, and reached as many as 30 late in the fourth quarter when the Cavaliers had relented and the final period turned into nothing more than extended garbage time.
No one in L.A. is going to mistake this Cleveland team, now with a record of just 9-30 on the season, with one of the league’s elite. Their only threat to score in bunches comes from Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, and the latter is more of a volume shooter than an efficient scorer at this early stage of his career.
But D’Antoni was right when he said that the turnaround has to start sometime, and to the Lakers credit, at least for a single night, they finally stepped up and responded to the challenge.