Monday afternoon in El Segundo, Calif., with the monkey of the first win finally off their backs, the Los Angeles Lakers were a collectively spirited bunch. Before practice was opened to the media, hoots, hollers and general enthusiasm could be heard on the other side of the wall separating the media room from the gym. Afterward, players and Lakers coach Mike Brown expressed elation at not having to discuss their win column's goose egg, as well as the potential for building upon the victory.
"It wasn't a sigh of relief for me," Brown said of the win. "It was a thing to help us continue to believe. Our guys were determined. I told them going into this that it wouldn't be easy and that it's a process. I told them we'll get bumped in the head a few times. I told them they had to handle the adversity they face the right way and it'll make us stronger later. It might make it tough what we go through now. But it will make us stronger in a seven-game series and we drop two in a row.
“Our resolve was great to see. More than anything else, it helps this group continue to believe that what we're doing is right for us."
Speaking of adversity, for the immediate future the Lakers will have to find ways to win without Steve Nash at the helm. Steve Blake and Darius Morris obviously can't hold a candle to the two-time MVP at peak efficiency, but the two have held down the fort reasonably well with Canada's favorite son sidelined. Brown expressed plenty of confidence in the duo, particularly since he wants to keep the goals simple.
"The guys we're playing now, in Blake and Morris, have some of the best feet in the league at that spot," Brown said. "They're going to have to get up and work the ball. Not to get steals but to take time off the clock and try to disjoint our opponent a little bit. Those guys did that perfectly last night. They brought the ball up the floor and didn't turn it over and did their job defensively.
"Offensively, the biggest thing is to keep us organized. If at all possible, we need low turnover numbers from those guys. We need them to be able to keep us organized. Both Blake and Morris did a fantastic job with that. Morris being a young guy and not playing much, he had a possession out there where he pushed the ball and the floor balance wasn't there. He brought the ball back out and put his hand out, like this, to calm everyone down. He got us into our offense and got a great look after moving the ball. Stuff like that has to be a big thing for the point guards."
Dwight Howard has been frequently repeating his coach's "bigger picture" mantra, so it was no surprise to hear him downplay any heavy significance to the win. (As he noted with a chuckle, the Lakers have 78 more games to play during the regular season.) During the winless doldrums, he'd been doing his best to keep the mood appropriately light as possible. Kobe was predictably more of the "bad cop," and Howard thinks their leadership styles mesh well.
"I think it's my job to make sure the team is always upbeat," Howard said with a smile. "I think having me and Kobe [around], I think we always make sure that we're focused. But at the same time, we're playing basketball for a living, so let's have fun while we do it."
What doesn't trickle Dwight, however, is the new, center-less All-Star ballot. To some, the decision to simply nominate three frontcourt players, rather than specifically designate two "forwards" and one "center," is an acknowledgement of the positional fluidity of today's NBA, in which traditional labels don't necessarily fit. (Just ask the Miami Heat.) To Howard, it's a knock on the league's current crop of centers and the position itself, and he doesn't like it.
"I don't like it at all," Howard grumbled. "We work just as hard as anybody else. I don't think it's fair to take away a position which has been here for life. You need a center on the court. So I don't think it's right. That's like taking away a guard. That's how I feel."
As Howard also noted, the game has evolved in a way that it no longer has centers to simply backing down opponents and clogging the middle. They often operate in the high to mid-post, launch the occasional 3-pointer and put the ball on the floor. Yes, that bucks tradition, but it also theoretically creates a more well-rounded player.
"You look at some of the guys playing center, they're jumping out of the gym," Howard said. "And they're athletic, shooting the ball well. Moving around. It's a totally different game than it was back then, so I don't feel it's right to take away a position that we all work so hard at trying to make it better, trying to make it a point of emphasis for younger generations to come back and want to play center. The game is evolving. They teach you now you gotta have more than just a back-to-basket game. You gotta be able to face up and shoot and move the defense."
Hearing Dwight, you got the sense he believes big men are being scorned rather than celebrated for widening their skills. To some degree, he's probably taking the new ballots too personally. I have no doubt this change was in large part a response to the relatively shallow pool of great centers as compared to small forwards and power forwards. Therefore, "frontcourt" offers a nice workaround.
But Dwight isn’t the problem, nor would anybody ever accuse him of being an unworthy All-Star. Dude's a perennial -- and rightful -- lock to receive a nod. Still, the guy takes a lot of pride not just in being a great player, but being a great center, especially as he's now part of a franchise that set the standard in the middle.
At the end of the day, I don't think Howard has much to worry about. But it was pretty cool to see him stick up for his fellow 5s.