Well, that was fun.
In the first game of the Mike D’Antoni era (even though he didn’t actually coach the game) and what looks to be the last game that Bernie Bickerstaff will man the lead chair, the Lakers used a dramatically faster pace and a more free flowing offense to take out the Suns 114-102.
The game began with Pau Gasol raining jumpers. With the Lakers using a more pick and roll heavy attack, Pau positioned himself around the opposite elbow of the action and consistently found himself wide open as the help left him in order to cover the paint. Time after time Dwight Howard drew extra defensive attention and there was Pau, happily taking the shots the offense afforded him, hitting them again and again. In the first quarter alone, Pau hit five consecutive shots from (essentially) the same spot on the floor.
As the game went on, and the Suns’ defense tightened their rotations to the Spaniard, the ball swung to Ron who camped behind the three point line with no defender close to him. He hit one three pointer. Then he hit another. Then he’d shot fake and take his man off the dribble to get to the rim and score.
Soon after that, Kobe got into the mix. He found open space on the wing and would hit a jumper. Later he’d work his way to the post and either back his man down for a shot close to the rim or spin off him for a lay in. After that he’d work the wing again, only this time he’d use a shot fake to either earn FT’s or drive by his man and threaten the paint again.
Next it was Dwight’s turn as he’d dive to the rim and get a nice pass that he’d convert after taking contact. Then Jodie Meeks would come off a screen and hit a pull up jumper. Then Jamison would hit a wing three pointer which was soon followed by a Morris drive to the rim in transition. When shots didn’t fall, the team would crash the offensive glass and clean up misses with put backs. Jordan Hill thrived in this area (again) as did Howard. Every player simply kept attacking.
If you’re sensing a theme, you’re not alone. One of the key parts of Mike D’Antoni’s press conference was when he said the Lakers would push the ball and make the pass to the open man; when he said that the ball would find energy and end up in the hands of their best players. Tonight, that was as true as it could have been as the entire team took it upon themselves to play with freedom yet with purpose. The result was a stellar offensive performance for most of the night that had everyone — from players to coaches to fans — smiling as the scoreboard lit up on what seemed like every possession.
Where the Lakers weren’t as good was on defense. The team didn’t hustle back after made or missed baskets and the Suns showed that two could play the uptempo game to create good looks. Goran Dragic raced the ball up court or threw the ball ahead to a streaking wing for clean looks at the rim. Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat got into the act as well, trailing plays to set high screens that left them open on their rolls to the rim as the Lakers’ D didn’t rotate well on the back end.
Shots went up that weren’t contested and hit the bottom of the net the way you’d expect them too when NBA players get open looks. Even in the half court, and when completely set, the Lakers didn’t adhere to simple things that would have surely been in their scouting report. Scola consistently got to his right hand and Dragic found room on screens to either shoot pull up jumpers or turn the corner to get into the paint for floaters. Michael Beasley was able to beat his man off the dribble and create shots for himself and then was able to pick out teammates for open shots when help finally arrived.
But, on this night, it was the Lakers superior talent that was just better at scoring the ball than the Suns. In the second half the track meet slowed down some and both defenses tightened but this only favored the Lakers more, as their players were simply better. A fourth quarter run finally put the Suns away and created a lead too big for them to overcome. At least on this night.
There’s still room for the Lakers to improve, obviously. As mentioned their defense suffered against a speedy guard that knew how to navigate screens and get to his favored spots on the floor. When the help came, other shooters were left open and they hit their shots. There was a bit too much relaxing on the defensive glass, especially from guards who didn’t close down the foul line to grab long rebounds that then turned into extended Suns possessions.
But there was also a lot of good in this game. Forget the increased pace and forget the good shooting night from Ron (who can’t be expected to hit five three pointers every night) and instead focus on the ball movement, the way that a rotating defense left offensive rebounding lanes open, and how the Lakers played a lot of half court possessions with the ball on the “weak” side of the formation. This allowed ball handlers to attack into space rather than into camped out post players calling for the ball.
These are things that will be refined even further as the players get more comfortable in this scheme and even more wrinkles are added. It was obvious the team was still running a lot of sets that Bickerstaff installed after the Brown firing but it was also clear that some of D’Antoni’s principles were already taking shape.
This was not a perfect game by any means but it was a start. The offense looked fantastic for long stretches but would still get bogged down at times. The defense looked bad for long stretches but still came up with some big plays when they were needed. If both of those things improve over time, this team will be very dangerous. This is only the starting point, but it’s a nice place to start. With a win.