LOS ANGELES -- Mike D'Antoni says he opted to delay his debut because of pain, fatigue and the adverse effects of medication. Personally, I think the guy's scared to follow in Bernie Bickerstaff's footsteps. And that fear ain't subsiding any time soon, by the way. The man just boosted his franchise-best winning percentage to .800! The more he coaches, the more the Los Angeles Lakers win. At some point, Mike, you're gonna have to stop ducking and hiding!
Here are four takeaways from the Lakers' 119-108 win over the Houston Rockets on Sunday.
1) Kobe Bryant stuffed the stat sheet in an exceptionally well-rounded night.
You know things are moving in a solid direction when a player enters "triple-double" watch during the first quarter. But with 11/7/5 after 12 minutes, Kobe had rightfully registered on that particular radar. By around halfway through the fourth quarter, premonition became a reality. Bryant finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. He always has boasted among the most complete games of any player in the league, and Sunday was yet another example of how many ways the 14-time All-Star can put his stamp on a contest. From inside and out, his judiciously selected shots found bottom. On several occasions covering Bryant, I've expressed my opinion that his rebounding skills remain his most under-appreciated talent. The guy is often a beast on the boards and this was one of those nights. Toss in three steals, and it was an equally happy night for the Lakers and those with Bryant on their fantasy teams.
By the way, there's no stat for "basketball IQ," but The Mamba proved himself smarter than the average snake on a pair of sequences earning trips to the line. First, with the opening quarter's final seconds ticking down and complete awareness Chandler Parsons would use Houston's foul to give, Kobe perfectly timed his 3-point attempt to coincide with contact, and was rewarded with three free throws for his troubles. In the third quarter, Bryant pump-faked Terrence Jones into the air, then rose to draw contact from the wing. Another trip to the charity stripe. Those, as the saying goes, are "veteran moves."
Bryant even managed to help make history for others via his production. In the third quarter, operating at the perimeter with a second defender approaching, Kobe rose for the shot, then rifled a pass to Pau Gasol at the free-throw line. The jumper dropped, and Gasol became just the 10th foreign-born player to reach the 15,000-point mark. The two have brought out the best in each other for years, and this was a slick demonstration of that teamwork.
Darius Morris is maturing with more playing time.
When the second-year player was first pressed into starting duties because of injuries to the Steves, more often than not, his age and inexperience was evident. For every good sequence, an over-excited, often over-dribbled miscue would ensue. But steadily, Morris has allowed the game to come to him. That the kid has the mind of a pure point guard has been obvious since his rookie season, and with the game slowing down, his instincts are being put to better use with improved decision making. Defensively, he also has progressed considerably faster than I expected, and he's learning how to make good use of his size and length. And in the meantime, he's becoming a reliable option from beyond the arc. Two triples fell Sunday night, pushing his percentage to nearly 44 percent.
Should that outside shot continue to cooperate, I wouldn't be shocked if D'Antoni opted to keep playing him in the second unit alongside Steve Blake (who I expect will retain the backup point duties upon getting healthy). Morris is far better creating for himself and others than Jodie Meeks -- whose night on both sides of the ball would best be described as "miserable" -- and if he's also a threat from deep, that could push him over the top. Either way, the kid's making a serious case to remain in the rotation.
Antawn Jamison set a season-high mark for shots.
Eight -- count 'em, eight -- field-goal attempts, with three connecting! This resulted in eight points, which is also his tops as a Laker. These peak tallies are not unrelated, and Jamison needs to make sure they become trends, rather than noteworthy occurrences. The guy was brought to L.A. to serve as instant offense, but thus far, has been strangely reluctant to force the issue. If he's not a focal point on the court, the second unit becomes far too predictable to defend. This was a step in the right direction for Jamison when it comes to aggressiveness, and it's imperative the forward build on this showing.
The Lakers saved the best for last on D.
Granted, the Rockets notched a 54.5 percent clip from the field after three quarters, there was really only one direction for the lockdown to go. The Lakers never got in trouble over the lax effectiveness, but against a better team, they might have. As much fun as it is watching points light up the scoreboard, these guys also need to start clamping down over four quarters with more regularity.