LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers won Friday night at Staples Center easily enough that garbage-time minutes -- or at least a garbage-time minute -- were afforded to the likes of Earl Clark, Robert Sacre and Darius Johnson-Odom. Still, I suspect fan reaction to the 114-102 win over the Phoenix Suns won't be universally positive. Not with so many question marks still surrounding the team, news that Steve Nash will miss at least another week, and a less-than-stellar effort on the defensive side of the court for much of the game.
So what did we learn? Here are six takeaways...
1. Fans worried about the disintegration of the Lakers' defense under Mike D'Antoni, chewed Xanax like Tic Tacs, and probably fell asleep before things improved down the stretch.
And D'Antoni wasn't even coaching this one.
Without question, Friday started as one of the Lakers' least effective efforts this season on that end of the court. No small statement given how the first five games went. In the first quarter, Phoenix was a robust 14-of-22 from the field. That dropped to 47 percent in the second quarter, though the Suns still posted 27 points, and out of the half Phoenix went 12-for-24. To their credit, the Lakers tightened things up late, holding Alvin Gentry's crew to eight points over the first seven minutes of the fourth (18 overall), allowing them to build a comfy lead, take control of what was a back-and-forth game, and even provide the sold-out crowd with fleeting hopes of free tacos. (Luke Zeller had no idea why he was getting booed for an otherwise meaningless bucket.)
But generally speaking, 84 points allowed through three -- an efficient 84 points, no less -- isn't a healthy recipe.
The Suns did it in all sorts of ways, whether in the open court capitalizing on turnovers or poor shot choices by the Lakers, off the pick and roll, or penetration from the wing. The Lakers weren't able to do much about Phoenix's ball movement, either (21 assists on 38 field goals through three quarters; a good number on the road). Equally important, the Lakers weren't able to seal off the lane, as Phoenix piled up 50 points in the paint heading into the fourth.
The Lakers did a decent job on the glass, but things were just too loose until the final 12 minutes.
2. Dwight Howard was uncomfortable.
The season has provided glimpses of the "real" Howard. Plays where he rises for a block, rotates strong to alter shots, or contests then quickly get off the floor again for a rebound. Certainly there have been good moments offensively. But Tuesday, Howard had six turnovers against San Antonio, and Friday he was no more comfortable with the ball. Phoenix attacked his hands, repeatedly stripping him in the post or knocking the ball away on rebounds over the course of the game. Moreover, he was made to look bad on a few trips at both ends by the empty shell of Jermaine O'Neal. This is not something happening to a fully healthy, fully confident D12.
Like the team, he looked better as the game went along, made a few very confident plays late and the final line of 18 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks isn't exactly minor league, but overall it was a night where you could see the gap between where Howard is and where most believe he'll end up.
3. Kobe Bryant wasn't quite as efficient as he has been this year, but was no less dominant.
At some point, he can be forgiven for not shooting over 50 percent over the course of a game, right? Still, a few first-half misses and a 1-of-5 effort from distance didn't prevent him from punishing the Suns with the full arsenal. Baseline jumpers, drives off the break, and the same relentless attacking style has defined his work this season. Eleven trips to the free throw line, and a lot of time spent in the paint on his way to a game-high 31. And while it was a season high in shots (24), Bryant didn't forget his teammates. His six assists tied Darius Morris for the team lead.
Defensively, Kobe helped ramp up the intensity heading into the final quarter with a nearly felonious harassment of former teammate Shannon Brown, forcing a turnover he'd convert at the other end. Another very strong game in a very strong early run for Bryant.
4. Metta World Peace and the open jumper were best of friends.
Before the game, Gentry reiterated D'Antoni's offense isn't really about shooting as fast as possible or endless fast breaks, but it is built around guys who can hit open shots. Tonight, MWP was that guy, particularly from the short corner that will be such a popular place in the new scheme. Fifteen of his 22 points came via the 3-pointer, and early on Metta looked as if he might be taking the whole seven-seconds thing a little too literally. Overall, he showed the capability of being a real weapon going forward. He has made 3-pointers before, but he also has missed them, too. He need not be Ray Allen, but if World Peace can be a credible threat from the perimeter, the Lakers shouldn't have much trouble hitting D'Antoni's 110-point-a-game target.
5. Bernie Bickerstaff finishes as the most successful coach by percentage in Lakers history, at .750.
Take that, Pat Riley! In your face, Phil Jackson!
6. Jordan Hill continues to be the best player off the bench.
Not that it's much of a competition, but Friday Hill put in another very solid night. He had 10 points, five rebounds, six assists, and a great block of Marcin Gortat in the third quarter. That, plus the boundless energy he provides every game. Jodie Meeks was 3-of-5 from the field and Antawn Jamison made a 3-pointer. Baby steps, but the bench unit continues to be led by Hill.