Defensive lineup change shows growth

LOS ANGELES -- Xavier Henry's Vince Carter-over-Frédéric Weis impression when he dunked on fellow Kansas Jayhawk Jeff Withey is what everyone will be talking about after the Los Angeles Lakers' 116-95 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday, but the most significant move of the night happened before the game.

Mike D'Antoni, hailed as an "offensive genius" by Kobe Bryant when the Lakers hired him as their head coach exactly one year ago Tuesday, made a major change to his starting lineup by putting defense as his top priority.

D'Antoni went with his sixth different starting unit through the Lakers' first nine games, but whereas the other lineup manipulations usually centered on finding better ways to score the ball -- Shawne Williams in at the stretch 4 in the hopes of spacing the floor and hitting 3-pointers, Nick Young in at the starting 3 for his ability to fill it up in a variety of ways, Chris Kaman at the 5 to use his midrange jump shot -- starting Jordan Hill and Wesley Johnson was all about defense and energy. Those are two things L.A. has been sorely lacking on a consistent basis this season.

"We definitely needed energy and defensive activity on our first unit because we need to start off games well, and I think Jordan and Wesley at the 3 can really give us that length and deflections and energy and hustle," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. "I think those things are going to help us on the first unit and hopefully it won't hurt too much the second unit."

Not only did the early energy help hold the Pelicans to just 19 points in the first quarter (after the Minnesota Timberwolves dropped an obscene 47 points in the first 12 minutes against L.A. on Sunday), but it set the tone that carried on throughout the game as New Orleans shot just 40.5 percent and scored 95 points, just the fourth time the Lakers have held their opponent to less than 100 this season.

Hill, in an ironic twist, ended up being L.A.'s leading scorer by dropping in a career-high 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting, but all he wanted to focus on was the defense he provided.

"It doesn't matter," Hill said of the points. "I just want to go out there and have fun. Whether I'm a starter or I'm coming off the bench I'm going to still do what I always do. I'm going to bring the energy, rebound, defend and run the floor."

Hill, who received three straight DNP-CDs last season because he didn't fit D'Antoni's preferred system of having one true big man and one front court guy that can draw the front court defender to the perimeter to open up driving lanes for the guards, showed he was willing to change by working on his jump shot in the offseason. Even if it's not quite game-ready yet (D'Antoni joked last week that Hill forgot his jumper in Atlanta, where he keeps his offseason home), the point is he was willing to change to try to benefit the team.

D'Antoni showed the same quality by placing defense over offense in a crucial substitution Tuesday. If it doesn't work, it looks as if D'Antoni is grasping at straws and just can't get it done when he doesn't have Steve Nash to make his vision look so masterful out on the court. But if it does work, as it did for a night anyway, it shows the coach is capable of growth.

If he is asking his players to be flexible with an 11-man rotation and playing different roles than they're accustomed to, he comes off a lot more easy to relate to if he is willing to do the same himself.

"This is a good group of guys," D'Antoni said. "We stressed it before, but I think today they realized what it's going to take to win, and they did it. I think Jordan Hill being in that first group helped with his energy and Wesley Johnson [too]. I thought they set the tone defensively and then everybody picked it up."

What changed?

"They anticipated better, got back on defense better and they talked better," D'Antoni said. "Everything mentally was better tonight and if we want to win and try to get into the playoffs, then this is what we have to do. It's not very difficult."

It may have been difficult for everyone -- D'Antoni on through the players -- to bend to get to where they are right now., but winning has a way of making things mighty comfortable.