LOS ANGELES — Six games ago, a frustrated Mike D’Antoni decided to shake up the rotation of his struggling 3-5 Lakers: Chris Kaman was out of the starting lineup, Jordan Hill was in; Nick Young became a sixth man and Wesley Johnson became the starting three; and with Steve Nash out Jodie Meeks became Steve Blake’s backcourt mate.
It worked — after the Lakers 100-86 win over Sacramento Sunday night, Los Angeles improved to 4-2 with that rotation and they have won three straight. Yes, they have done this mostly at home (5-of-6) but the bottom line is the Lakers are a .500 team at 7-7.
And you can thank the defense.
Seriously. A Mike D’Antoni team is winning with defense. A team that was 17th in the NBA in defense last season then lost its two best defenders is winning with defense.
In those six games the Lakers are allowing just 97.9 points per 100 possessions, which would be fifth best in the NBA on the season. Opponents are shooting just 42.5 percent overall and 31 percent from three. Teams are converting on only 55.2 percent of their shots in the restricted area and they are shooting 31.8 percent from the midrange.
An active and at times swarming Lakers defense frustrated the Kings in the second half Sunday as Sacramento shot just 33.3 percent in the final 24 minutes, putting up just 38 points. The Kings had an offensive rating of 88.1
“We are sticking to our principles a lot,” D’Antoni said after the Lakers win Sunday. “I think they’re getting to the point where they’re not thinking about things and just reacting and sticking to what we are doing. They’re just following the game plan really well. The last part is their effort. They want to do it. I think because you share the ball on offense and everyone feels good about how they are playing that transfers on the defensive end and get more team energy.”
The Lakers are doing it with energy — this is not a team of lock-down defenders or elite athletes known for their defense. But starting with the ball of energy that is Jordan Hill on the back end the Lakers are doing a good job of driving guys to help and closing out on shooters. They are playing hard and fundamentally sound defense. In the NBA, a league full of athletes, defense really starts with effort.
“Intensity,” Pau Gasol said of the defensive improvement. “I think we’re communicating. I think we’re doing a good job defensively. For the most part I think we did a good job of holding this team to 86 points. I think we showed a great effort and we just have to keep that up.”
Is this sustainable long-term? Likely not, at least not at this level. We’ll see if the Lakers can keep that up on the road, with three games in four nights this week — Washington, Brooklyn and Detroit. Then they come home to the red-hot offense of Portland. That is going to test the Lakers newfound defensive commitment. Plus soon they will work Kobe Bryant back into the rotation — a 35-year-old guy coming off a serious surgery.
But at least for a couple of weeks now, the Lakers have done it with defense. Which was about the last thing we expected from them this season.
Pistons 109, Nets 97: Brooklyn looked like they could get a win at home after a pretty good first half — Joe Johnson had 16 points in the first 24 (he finished the game with 34) and with a late 13-2 run the Nets were up 7 at the break. Then the third quarter happened. The Nets shot 26.3 percent in the third, the Pistons shot 66.7 percent and got to the line. Brandon Jennings had 10 in the quarter. Brooklyn couldn’t make that up in the fourth as the Pistons stayed hot. Rodney Stuckey led the Pistons with 27.
Clippers 121, Bulls 82: Did Chicago miss Derrick Rose? Yes. But that’s not why they lost by 39 — Chicago just did not show up defensively. The Clippers have the second best offense in the NBA this young season and they showed hit hitting 58.5 percent of their shots, they were moving the ball (32 assists on 48 makes) and they had an offensive rating of 129 on the night (they are averaging 108.6 on the season). Jared Dudley led the way for the Clippers with 21 and hit 4-of-5 from three. Chris Paul had 16 points and 17 assists. Don’t expect another bad Bulls defensive performance, Tom Thibodeau seemed frustrated with it after the game.
Suns 104, Magic 96: The Suns took the lead with a 13-5 run in the first quarter, led the whole way on the road and even when the Magic got within three it felt like the Suns would get the win. The reason is Goran Dragic who was just the best player on the floor — 23 points, 13 assists, and no turnovers. Gerald Green added 20 and the Suns just got the tempo up and the Magic could not keep up. Good news for Orlando —Tobias Harris was back in the lineup. He looked rusty but he was at least back.
Thunder 95, Jazz 73: Oklahoma City is a good team in a good groove lately. Utah is a bad team playing worse than anyone in the NBA. Together this is what you get — OKC had doubled up Utah at one point, 66-33. This game had all the suspense of “How I Met Your Mother” will end, we’ll spare you the long story. Suffice to say moving Marvin Williams into Utah’s starting lineup didn’t change anything, and as you might expect rookie Trey Burke struggled in his first NBA start. Utah won the last quarter by 10 or this would have looked a lot worse. Kevin Durant had 19 on 9 shots, Perry Jones had a nice 13 off the Thunder bench. Enes Kanter and Rudy Gobert with 10 each led the Jazz. Yes, seriously.
Lakers 100, Kings 86: As discussed above, the Lakers had a solid offensive night — Xavier Henry had 21 points, Pau Gasol had 20 points and 10 rebounds — but the Lakers really won this game with defense. In the second half the Kings scored just 38 points on 33.3 percent shooting as the Lakers protected the rim well and closed out aggressively on shooters. The Lakers led most of the way but never by much until the Lakers bench (often its spark plug this season) put up a 10-0 run late in the third then a 15-6 run to start the fourth. At that point it was over. DeMarcus Cousins had 17 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists but couldn’t get really going as the Lakers threw a lot of bodies at him. Greivis Vasquez had 20 points and kept the Kings going in the first half. But the Lakers turned their defense into transition offense and pulled away for the win.