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.