|It wasn't pretty but Mike D'Antoni will take it. (Getty Images)|
One night into the Mike D'Antoni experiment and we've learned something valuable: This is going to be a big work in progress.
The Los Angeles Lakers got the victory over the Brooklyn Nets with a 95-90 win in D'Antoni's Lakers debut, but we didn't see a vast change in their style of play. The start of the game had the exact energy Lakers fans were hoping for. The pace was quick, the scoring was crisp, and the Lakers shot out to a 10-0 lead almost instantly. But reality quickly brought the team back down to earth and into a tightly contested game.
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Brook Lopez was a scoring threat from all over the floor, Deron Williams seemed to show offense to being defended by Darius Morris, and Gerald Wallace darted all over the court to make plays for the Nets. The Lakers and Nets calmed the pace of the game and had to grind out an ugly game to the wire.
The new offense we've been promised will develop wasn't quite there. We saw flashes of it throughout the game. Kobe Bryant running a pick-and-roll, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard playing high-low and sharing interior passes, and kickout passes to players posing as shooters on the wings showed a glimmer of fluidity that will heighten over the next few months.
The pace of the game was slower than we've seen from the Lakers so far this season. There were 91 possessions in the game and the Lakers have averaged 95.48 possessions per contest. The lack of flow in the game, especially on the Lakers side of the halfcourt, stemmed from the real issue for this team all night -- Howard.
His defense was adequate but not what you would expect from the multiple Defensive Player of the Year award winner. He was slow on some rotations, got pushed out on some offensive rebounds, and didn't get out to challenge midrange shooters like you would want him to do. The Lakers will need quicker, smarter and more effective play from him on that end of the floor as the playoffs approach. But for now, it was good enough and he still finished with a fantastic stat line.
Howard finished with some pretty eye-catching numbers: 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 15 rebounds, four blocks, three assists and three turnovers. That's an exceptional night for just about any player you can put on a basketball court. However, the free-throw shooting registered at just 7 of 19 and the Nets went to the strategy of Hack-a-Howard or Smite-a-Dwight or whatever you want to call it.
While Kobe was hoisting up 40-foot attempts and trying to convince the referees he should get three free throws for the Nets intentionally fouling Dwight, the Lakers' center was going to the line and making half of his attempts, at best. You can make the argument that the Lakers are essentially guaranteeing themselves a point per "possession" on these plays and that's not a terrible guarantee.
The problem with being forced into this situation is the Lakers' goal of offensive flow gets taken away from them. And that's not the Mike D'Antoni way. This won't be the strategy against them every night, and some nights Dwight will actually make the majority of these attempts. But on a night when some people might have been expecting offensive fireworks, the Lakers struggled to score in the fourth quarter and needed some equally inept offense from their opponents to secure the victory.
The Lakers managed just three made field goals in the fourth quarter and were relegated to earning this victory at the line. Dwight took 10 attempts from the charity stripe and Kobe forced his way to the line for 10 fourth-quarter attempts of his own. And yet, they still walked away with the win to push their record over .500 for the first time this season.
They still have Steve Blake and, more importantly, Steve Nash to add back to this roster. They will have a more well-rounded attack at the point guard slot and that will allow them to push the tempo more often like they did in the first few minutes of the game and spread the floor. Kobe won't have to force as much of the action at the end of games, and he'll be able to find his way into easier scoring opportunities to put opponents away.
Looking at Tuesday's game, Dwight shot 36.8 percent from the free-throw line, the players not legally named Metta World Peace shot 2 of 12 from 3-point range, and Deron Williams torched Darius Morris for most of this game. And they still walked away with the victory over a quality team. Dwight won't always shoot that poorly, the Lakers won't always be that inept from outside and Steve Nash will still get scored on by the opposing All-Star point guard. However, he'l be Steve Nash on the other end of the floor and not Darius Morris, who will take time to learn his place in the flow of the system.
Even through all of the game's warts for the Lakers, Kobe Bryant was spectacular (even with some forced plays at the end of the game), Pau Gasol was a perfect go-between for Kobe and Dwight, and Metta World Peace scored efficiently.
Tuesday night was Step 1 of a long process of building familiarity between D'Antoni and the roster he has at his disposal. It's a work in progress, but right now it's a winning work in progress. Laker Land will take it.