HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Kobe Bryant smiling.
Dwight Howard playing like the low-post behemoth we all know him to be. Paul Gasol at ease and Metta World Peace fitting in as well.
Seeing the Los Angeles Lakers in a groove and playing like the contender the world expected them to be has an almost eerie feel to it after months of uncertainty about exactly what this super team might be.
If this is what the Mike D’Antoni era is going to look like, it won’t be hard for the Phil Jackson loyalists in the party to get on board with the new regime.
The Lakers halting the Brooklyn Nets’ five-game win streak Tuesday night was just the latest in a string of winning performances from the same team that started this season 1-4 and greased the skids for Mike Brown‘s ouster. No one was asking for the Lakers to look like a championship team right away. They only wanted to see them win in a manner befitting of a roster stocked with several future Hall of Famers.
So even when they perform without the sort of spectacular offensive flair people have come to expect from D’Antoni-coached teams and show obvious reasons why they cannot (and will not) do so in the coming weeks, there is still reason for optimism. The promise of a long and bountiful future together is what has to excite Lakers fans about this Lakers-D’Antoni pairing.
Steve Nash isn’t even healthy right now, with no real timetable set for his return, and the Lakers are toe-deep in learning the system that has served so many so well over the course of D’Antoni’s career.
More than anything, the Lakers looked more comfortable in their own skin now than they ever did under Brown, who is no doubt watching now and wondering where the disconnect was during his tenure.
“We know what we’re doing out there and that helps,” Gasol told J.A. Adande of ESPN.com. “There’s not much hesitation and that contributes to limiting the mistakes. That’s the main key. Even though it’s a new system, we’re playing out of pick-and-rolls, pistol actions, pindowns, post-ups. Very familiar, basic stuff that, thanks to our personnel, we get so much out of.”
Any outstanding concerns about the Lakers’ defensive effort or Howard’s longstanding issues at the free throw line (which included the Nets employing the “Hack-A-Howard” defense down the stretch) should be eased by the fact that this is only the beginning. And in defense of big men with no shooting touch from the foul line, Howard’s struggles there didn’t prevent the Orlando Magic from making it to The Finals in 2009. Plus, the Jackson-era Lakers were certainly able to overcome Shaquille O’Neal‘s career-long deficiencies there, too.
There seemed to be a nervous energy surrounding D’Antoni’s true arrival (on the bench), a feeling that lasted all the way until the final seconds of his first outing. And that’s a good thing for a franchise trying to relocate that edge that fueled them to back-to-back titles just three seasons ago.
Don’t let the aw-shucks routine fool you … D’Antoni knows his stuff. And by now he is fully aware of the magnitude of the job he has signed on for.
Coaching the Lakers isn’t just one of 30 NBA coaching gigs. It’s like being the manager for the New York Yankees, the starting quarterback at Notre Dame or any one of a handful of truly iconic positions in sport that come with an extra set of rules, regulations and expectations.
Winning big but not winning it all, the way D’Antoni did in Phoenix, will not be good enough in L.A.
D’Antoni’s in an all-or-nothing situation with these Lakers and the clock is ticking. The same rule he applied for playing his biggest stars the biggest minutes apply to his situation as well and his knee replacement surgery rehab won’t get him any kind of pass.
“They make a lot of money,” he quipped. “They’re going to earn every cent of it.”
And so it goes for everyone associated with the Lakers these days.