1. Lakers Embrace Fun Spirit Of New Regime
LOS ANGELES -- It turns out the prescription for the Los Angeles Lakers wasn't in the X's and O's, it's in the laughs and smiles. If you never even looked at the Staples Center scoreboard Sunday night you could still see all the evidence you need of the impact of Mike D'Antoni's offense -- even if D'Antoni himself wasn't on the sidelines to direct it.
He still hasn't sufficiently recovered enough from his knee replacement surgery to withstand the rigors of coaching an NBA game, so Bernie Bickerstaff handled those duties for the fifth time since Mike Brown was fired.
Meanwhile, there was Metta World Peace, raising his arms Joe Montana-style to celebrate his full-court pass that led to a layup. There was Steve Nash, in a suit, seated behind the bench, doing the Gangnam Style dance. Pau Gasol politely applauded the announcement that he had just scored his 15,000th career point. Even Kobe Bryant stood still for a few moments after he tossed in a jumper and drew the foul, soaking it all in.
As someone well versed in D'Antoni's offense predicted before the game, "They're going to have so much fun, it's going to take away any doubt."
For those who still didn't believe this offense could work with this roster, the scoreboard provided all the evidence. The Lakers scored 68 points in the first half and 119 for the game to cruise past the Houston Rockets. All five starters had double-digit points. The Lakers shot 74 percent in the first quarter, 54 percent overall.
I spent an inordinate amount of my weekend asking players and coaches who had worked in D'Antoni's system how the Los Angeles Lakers would look under their new coach, and somehow everything they said came to fruition.
"The good twist they have is they have someone in Kobe where it's something that D'Antoni has never had."
Nash's highest scoring average during his two MVP seasons in Phoenix was 18.8 points. Kobe can get 19 in a half when he's going. Sunday, he combined a bit of Nash's playmaking with his own nose for the basket and produced the 18th triple-double of his career: 22 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds.
"We have a play called 2 Down Bump, where Kobe will get the ball on the block, coming over, Dwight can set a screen there's so many dimensions. I think it's going to be more free-flowing."
It sounds contradictory, but when Kobe dribbles into Dwight Howard's vicinity it actually creates more space, because defenders get trapped in no-man's land, trying to brace for multiple threats.
"When I'm coming to the basket and I'm in the teeth of the defense, they have to make a choice," Bryant said. "Either they're going to give me a shot or they're going to give up the roll or they're going to have to give up the big rolling up, or they're going to have to give up the opposite corner.
"It's not like Dwight [Howard] has to worry about getting the ball and scoring, because if you add more possessions he'll get more opportunities."
Howard had a season-high 18 field goal attempts. He made 11 of them to help him to 28 points (along with 13 rebounds). He made a couple of hook shots, but most of his buckets were layups and dunks, including one jam on the fast break.
At least once a game, Bryant would throw him a pass and Howard will indicate he'd rather have the ball lobbed up to the rim. "We're just learning each other's game," Howard said. "It's going to take some time but we're doing the best we can."
Howard also drew the usual amount of desperation fouls when he got the ball under the basket, and that brings up an important difference between this offense with the Suns and these Lakers. When the offense was at its free-flowing best in Phoenix the Suns also led the league in free throw percentage, shooting better than 80 percent. Amar'e Stoudemire was the worst of their regulars, and he still hit 73 percent in his lowest free throw shooting season in that offense.
The Lakers are 28th in the NBA free throws, shooting 69 percent, primarily because Howard has made only half of his foul shots. In an offense that is predicated on being more efficient in a pace that will provide opportunities for both sides, this could definitely hurt them down the road.
"You don't have to have great 3-point shooters, you just have to have guys who are capable of making an open jump shot. I see all the guys out there and I don't know who's not capable of making an open jump shot. I know Pau is."
On the Lakers' very first possession, Kobe dropped a pass to Gasol for a top-of-the-key jump shot that went in. That's the shot that will be there for him frequently in this offense. He made it three times in six attempts Sunday night.
"I think I make things a little easier for the pick-and-roll, for the guy rolling," Gasol said. "And then, if the ball gets to me I can knock that shot down pretty consistently. And then I can make good decisions with the ball. So even though I'm not stretching myself all the way out to the 3-point line, I'm still being pretty effective and making it work."
Or you could say the offense is making him work better. A 52 percent shooter for his career, he was off to a 42 percent start to this season. Against Houston he made 7 of his 13 shots for 17 points.
"Antawn Jamison could be the guy."
Jamison is off to a disappointing start with the Lakers, averaging only 3.9 points per game. But he made two of his five 3-pointers Sunday and scored a season-high eight points.
For a change, the bench held its own and didn't undo everything the starters had accomplished.
Which brings to mind one more observation about this offense I heard this weekend.
"You're going to get wide-open looks. I don't care how bad a 3-point shooter you are, the more open looks you get, your percentage will go up."
Shots going in builds confidence. Confidence brings out the fun. Scoring is fun.
Defending is a chore, and while the unleashed Lakers have been romping on offense, they also have allowed at least 100 points in each of the past two games.
"We still have a long way to go," Jamison said. "Defensively, we can't allow that to happen. Right now we're just beating guys on our talents. But we're in a situation where we're competing, we're running up and down the court. The most important thing is, you see smiles at the end of that bench when there's zeroes on the clock."
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
Most valuable player: It wasn't just Kobe's triple-double (22 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) that stole the show, but the way he controlled the game in the process of putting up those numbers. He quarterbacked the Lakers' offense wonderfully and seemed to make the right decision every time down the court. Just a sublime night for Kobe Bean.
Least valuable player: It seems a bit unfair to harp too much on Lin's performance considering he led his team with 10 assists. But he also scored only five points on nine field goal attempts, took only one free throw, and was outplayed by second-year pro Darius Morris. Overall, his team simply needed more from him.
Defining moment: On one fourth-quarter sequence, Dwight Howard took the bait on a Cole Aldrich head fake but on his way down still blocked the shot attempt anyway. On the ensuing fast break, Howard operated as the trailer and got a sweet drop pass from Darius Morris that he flushed home with one hand. That bucket pushed L.A.'s lead to 19 and the rout was on.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Starting at point guard for an injured Kyle Lowry (bone bruise), Jose Calderon picked apart the Magic's defense with his passing all afternoon. Stat of the day? Calderon: 18 assists (including 10 in the fourth quarter alone). Orlando: 18 assists.
X factor: Amir Johnson (15 points) and Linas Kleiza (12 points) gave the Raptors a huge lift off the bench, particularly in the fourth quarter, where they combined to score 24 of Toronto's 30 points in the period.
Defining moment: After coughing up a 13-point lead and trailing 74-73 early in the fourth quarter, the Raptors responded by going on a 19-4 run that allowed them to regain control of the game. Calderon's passing wizardry mystified the Magic during the run.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Andray Blatche. You could go with plenty of Nets here. Deron Williams had a fine game, but nothing special. MarShon Brooks had a fine game with some neat finishes. But Blatche stole the show with his shooting.
LVP: Gerald Wallace. Crash didn't exactly have a stinker for the ages; Wallace made a few nice defensive plays. Offensively, though, Wallace seemed totally invisible for long stretches, staying passively on the perimeter as a mediocre facilitator.
That was inexplicable: With few secondary stats, Blatche was far from game-changing. But Blatche hit his first 10 shots from the field, finishing 11-for-12 (0-1 freebies) for 22 points, including a run of 12 consecutive Nets points.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Greg Monroe. The Pistons center had six baskets in the restricted area and was an unstoppable force all night long, especially whenever Boston chose to go small with Jared Sullinger at center. He finished with a game-high 20 points (on 8-for-11 shooting) and 13 rebounds.
LVP: Boston's offense. Not that this is a startling development, but with the Celtics playing their seventh game in 10 days, the offense didn't show up. Ball movement was non-existent, and the team recorded just 12 assists (they came into the game leading the league with 25.3 per game). Also, Jason Terry, Brandon Bass, and Leandro Barbosa combined to shoot 5-for-21 from the floor.
That was unceasing: Rajon Rondo barely continued his double-digit assist streak on a Jared Sullinger pick-and-pop jump shot -- with less than a minute to play in an embarrassing blowout. It now stands at 34, with the great Magic Johnson sitting in first at 46.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Kevin Durant. Anytime a player on the winning team puts up a triple-double then they automatically win the game's MVP. Trust me, it's in a rulebook somewhere. He put up 25/13/10 to get his first ever trip-dub and controlled the game from wire-to-wire.
X factor: Kevin Martin. While this is nowhere near a definitive statement on who "won" the trade, Martin filled Harden's old role perfectly with 23 points off 5-for-7 from 3-point land and 5 assists off the bench in 31 minutes. It certainly makes losing Harden easier with a performance like that.
LVP: Klay Thompson. In a game in which the other team shoots more than 50 percent, you can't afford for your starting shooting guard to shoot only 2-for-8 while taking no free throws. He really needs to find a way to contribute when his 3-ball isn't falling.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Nic Batum had another scorching third quarter and provided the Blazers a huge spark, and Wes Matthews bullied his way to 21 points, but LaMarcus Aldridge was the consistent workhorse in a strong team effort, posting 18 points and 13 boards as the Blazers won their first consecutive home games and third straight overall.
LVP: Carlos Boozer. To be honest, it was a little difficult to notice Boozer on Sunday night, and that's precisely the problem. Boozer put up four points on eight shots in 22 minutes against a Blazers defense that has had trouble controlling the paint, and a balanced output from his teammates couldn't make up the difference.
That was intriguing: The Blazers have now won three straight and it's fair to wonder how they'll approach the rest of the season. Some observers -- this one included -- assumed Portland would be closer to tanking than competing, and while there's plenty season left to see whether that's the case, they've shown that their core players will keep a lot of games tight.
3. Sunday's Best
Triple-double superstars: Kobe Bryant put up the 18th triple-double (22 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) of his career in a win over the Rockets. Kevin Durant earned the first of his career (25-13-10) with the win over the Warriors. Yup, those guys can play.
4. Sunday's Worst
Cavaliers' backcourt: The promising youngsters Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters did not have the range in this one, combining to shoot 6-for-27 in a 86-79 loss to the 76ers. The Cavs have now slouched to six straight losses.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I'm sure some people feel I shouldn't [have bowled]. But I'm kind of taking the position if that happened bowling, what happens dunking? I don't see anything wrong with going bowling."
-- Andrew Bynum, on the knee woes exacerbated by his penchant for bowling.
8. Familiar Rise
9. Stat Check
Andray Blatche led the Brooklyn Nets in scoring with 22 points off the bench in Brooklyn's 99-90 win at Sacramento. Blatche became the first NBA player this season to score 20 points in fewer than 20 minutes played. And he's the first Nets player to score at least 20 points in less than 20 minutes since Rafer Alston, who tallied 20 points in 19 minutes on Dec. 15, 2009 at Cleveland.
10. Dunk Of The Night
Turner Finds His Shot
Most valuable player: Evan Turner, who's struggled to find his shot since he first pulled on a Sixers jersey, found it on Sunday. The oft-maligned former No. 2 overall pick scored a cool 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting and added six rebounds and a career-high nine assists. He's getting better.
X factor: In a battle of young point guards who shoulder enormous expectations, it was the less heralded of the two who won the night. Jrue Holiday scored 14, handed out nine dimes, and held nascent superstar Kyrie Irving, already the NBA's fifth leading scorer, to just nine points -- including an insult-to-injury strip with 1:45 left. Until the next round.
That was offensive: The Cavs' defense has, by every conceivable measure, been the worst in the Association in the season's opening weeks. But it was the other end of the floor that was the problem against the Sixers. With its Irving/Waiters backcourt misfiring on all cylinders, Cleveland mustered a season-low 79 points on 30-of-84 shooting.
Melo Plugs Away For Win
MVP: Carmelo Anthony. Early on, Mr. Anthony was making his way to the rim but having his shots thwarted by the Pacers' interior defense. Unperturbed, he stayed aggressive and began to mix in some jumpers with a relentless, bully-ball attack on the paint. The result was the best stat line in an ugly game.
Defining moment: The third quarter. The Pacers' early-game shooting struggles disappeared after halftime, as they shot 10-for-14 in the period. But the Knicks still managed to increase their double-digit halftime lead by forcing eight turnovers and grabbing seven offensive rebounds (on 15 missed shots). Nothing came easily for either team during this noon start, but the Knicks showed that one team wasn't going to let bad shooting cost them a win.
LVP: Roy Hibbert. This was another horror-show performance from the 7-foot-2 center, who in this game was the anchor of the Pacers' offense in the preparative sense. He shot 3-for-10 and had two of his shots blocked (one by Marcus Camby on a seemingly wide-open dunk try) while turning the ball over six times in just 25 minutes. And the way he held the ball and hurt the offensive spacing, his woes went well beyond the box score.