OAKLAND, Calif. – OK, now what?
Lakers 2.0 was unveiled Saturday night, with Steve Nash back from a leg injury and officially reunited with Mike D’Antoni, his coach then and now, with a new look to the lineup, and with the sign of desperation of D’Antoni calling Nash’s return a splash of warm fuzzies that will help the defense.
Oh, and with about four months left to fix pretty much everything.
Actually, they don’t even have until the end of the regular season, not at 13-14 and in 11th place in the Western Conference, just 1 ½ games out of the eighth and final playoff spot but also two games away from a tumble to 13th. Especially since this never has been about just making the playoffs. The Lakers need to put together long stretches of consistency when that so far has eluded them in short bursts.
Saturday night against the Warriors at Oracle Arena was a good place to start the climb back: a 118-115 victory for L.A. after trailing by 14 points early in the fourth quarter, Nash surprising himself by playing 41 minutes as D’Antoni took advantage of the return without time restrictions, the Lakers defense taking another beating by allowing 61 points in the first half before Golden State managed 54 the final two quarters and overtime. Not bad for a season opener, the first game with this coach and this lineup, now with Darius Morris starting at shooting guard and Kobe Bryant moved to small forward.
It left Bryant supremely confident as the Lakers try to hack their way through adversity, some self-inflicted (focus and effort, defense) and some handed down by the fates (injuries). He would have been optimistic about the months, sure. But playing with Nash again, for the first time since Nash fractured his left leg Oct. 31 at Portland, was clearly added adrenaline.
“It’s going to be seamless,” he said of the so-called adjustment period to the rotation coming together again. “We don’t really have to adjust to anything at all. He just steps right in and off we go.”
So the Lakers’ chances of making the playoffs are …?
“I don’t know,” Bryant said. “We’ll see. It’ll be tough.”
He was being sarcastic. The real read is somewhere north of “certain.”
“You’re worried, but that’s what continues to trigger the urgency, the attention to detail and stuff like that,” Bryant said. “I have complete confidence that we’ll make the playoffs, but you have to keep that level of concern because it keeps you on edge. We understand the Western Conference is a very, very tough conference with teams that are playing extremely well. But at the same time, I have complete faith that we will.”
D’Antoni, who enjoyed success in Phoenix with Nash running the point, was equally optimistic while admitting the Lakers still have problems to solve. So optimistic that D’Antoni said the return of Nash will improve the defense, contrary to logic around the league.
Nash, a great shooter, will make baskets and that will make it tougher for opponents to hurt the Lakers in transition. That’s one improvement. Nash will be the perfect pick-and-roll trigger man to help Dwight Howard improve in that area, an understandable sentiment given Nash’s skill in the sets. Another boost for the offense equals another cushioning blow for the defense. And, just feeling good about being close to full strength.
“Not to take anything away from the other guys, but everybody gets a little bit more pep in their step,” D’Antoni said. “Our defense is better with Steve because everybody’s happier and everybody has a little bit more energy on the defensive end. Hopefully it goes that way. Again, we’ll have some valleys. We’ll still have some problems. It doesn’t solve everything. But it is a good step forward.”
Saturday was all about the emotions for the Lakers, from the return announced before the game to the comeback during to the insistence from Bryant after. It was one night. But, yes, it was a good step forward.