The Lakers decisively beat the Houston Rockets on Sunday by a final score of 119-108 in their highest scoring game of the season. They separated quickly in the first quarter, and maintained their lead throughout the game. During the fourth quarter, they had as much as an 18-point lead, before putting on the brakes for garbage time.
The widely anticipated reunion—of sorts—between Mike D’Antoni, the new coach of the Lakers, and Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin—his old protégé during their time together in New York—did not take place as planned. Just minutes before the regularly scheduled press conference, the press room was notified that D’Antoni would not be coaching that night. But when asked about Lin, D’Antoni replied with some sentiment: “That’s a moment that when I retire, when you sit around, that’s one of the best moments I ever had coaching.”
Although D’Antoni said he was “anxious to get out there and ready to go,” the long-time Lakers’ trainer, Gary Vitti, had advised against it. Not wanting to be “a sideshow,” he decided to skip the evening’s game and let Bernie Bickerstaff continue as interim coach.
“I’m disappointed,” he later said. “I kinda got ahead of myself… I wanted to be [out there], but it’s just not quite there yet.”
Bickerstaff half-jokingly conjectured that the new coach and Steve Nash, a veteran of D’Antoni’s campaigns with the Phoenix Suns, might be “waiting to make their debut together.”
When asked whether he expected to have any contact with the team throughout the game, D’Antoni replied: “Halftime, before the game, after the game, but not during the game,” since he did not want to take away from Bickerstaff’s rhythm and authority. As for the continued employment of Bickerstaff on his coaching staff, D’Antoni unhesitatingly replied: “Oh yeah, he’s here, yeah.” But joked: “Unless he loses this game. You know, pressure’s on everybody.”
For his part, appearing relaxed and contemplative about his short stint as the head coach of the most popular basketball franchise in the world, Bickerstaff seemed slightly surprised when told that he would remain on D’Antoni’s staff. “Well, that’s all news to me! I hadn’t heard anything pro- or con-… That’s nice to know.”
In general, D’Antoni suggested that he was aiming for a gradual and deliberate transition to his style of coaching. He said his involvement thus far has been “a little bit, not much,” since “you don’t want [the players] to think and play, you just want them to play in the act.” Later, he said of the progress the team has been making towards his style of play, “everyday should be better, everyday the guys are feeling better… then everything should be good.” Making it clear that Nash will be instrumental in that progress, D’Antoni said: “obviously it’s a lot easier with Steve Nash on because he has the command of it.”
Bickerstaff, however, was somewhat more forthcoming. When asked how much influence D’Antoni has had so far on the team, Bickerstaff replied: “He’s there in practice now and he’s going to shootarounds and he talks during practice, as well as pre-game, post-game, halftime.” Then he added that D’Antoni “has implemented some things and we’re trying to run those things. And to the players’ credit and their intellectual capacity, they’ve been able to comprehend some of this stuff and put it on the floor and do a pretty decent job of it… So most definitely.”
Consequently, we are not yet clear about how much influence D’Antoni has had, and we have—to whatever degree that influence may extend—only one or (counting Friday’s game against Phoenix, a 114-102 win) two games to survey. There are further caveats against over-speculation to keep in mind: for example, the general mood of the team that they now have a new coach and, thereby, have been disburdened of the especially difficult Princeton Offense; and that they went against what at this point must be considered a fairly weak team, the Houston Rockets. Nevertheless, D’Antoni’s particular brand of the uptempo style was clearly palpable, especially during the first half. If this game was a preview of what is to come, then Lakers’ fans should be relieved—perhaps even excited.
D’Antoni’s particular brand of the uptempo style generates what is not tracked by the stats. It’s not just that during each possession a conversion is completed as soon as possible. Instead, it’s that during each possession, the ball is more frequently distributed from player to player.
The motto is, after all, “7 seconds or less.” This does not mean that the player should shoot in seven seconds or less; rather, it means that, unless an open look occurs in less than seven seconds, the ball must be passed to another player. With this kind of system, there are more open looks generated per possession than in isolation plays. And more open looks per possession means—assuming everyone’s playing on par—enhanced accuracy in scoring. By creating more clean looks, it literally makes every player better since clean looks mean easier shots.
And that is what we saw in the first half of the game. The Lakers’ pace was faster than previously and the ball was distributed often and rapidly. It resulted in Pau Gasol getting clean enough looks to hit three out of six jump shots in the first half. For the game, Gasol shot 54% from the field, in contrast to his 43% for the season. Bryant’s 11 points in the first half were also from very clean looks. And for the entire game, World Peace was clearly the biggest beneficiary: for his 15 points, he shot 63% as opposed to his season average of 38%. The team as a whole shot 54% from the field while hitting 45% of their threes. Their averages for the season had been, respectively, 45% and 33%.
By the same token, since greater frequency of ball distribution should yield a greater number of assists, we should expect a corresponding uptick. The Lakers had been averaging around 20 assists per game so far this season. Against Houston, they recorded 27. In particular, Bryant registered 11 assists, mostly in the first half, while he had been averaging just under 5 per game this season—which is pretty much his career average. Of course, he is compensating for the absence of a starter-grade point guard. And once Nash in particular returns, those numbers should go down. But if Bryant decides to buy into D’Antoni’s approach, we should expect above career-average in assists from him.
However, once they gained significant separation in the second half, Kobe in particular seemed to feel expansive and reverted to more isolation plays. He began taking increasingly more difficult shots even though some of his teammates were open, including a jump shot in the middle of the third quarter when he was clearly obstructed by Terrence Jones. The rest of the Lakers’ line-up followed suit, then there was less of D’Antoni’s influence to be discerned. Nevertheless, Kobe registered a triple-double: 22 points on 50% shooting and 11 rebounds to go with his 11 assists.
After the middle of the fourth quarter—during which they led by as much as 18 points—the Lakers appeared as though they were playing an exhibition game against an increasingly hapless Houston team.
After a promising start, the Rockets soon became visibly overmatched. In particular, they had no answer for Dwight Howard. Able to return the ball to competent teammates when unable to post-up easily, only to get the ball back once the resistance abated, Howard scored readily and, at times, ostentatiously.
Although the Rockets distributed the ball quickly and frequently on most offensive plays, they missed several easy shots while taking ill-advised risks on more difficult ones. In contrast to a spectacular court-length pass from Gasol—with just 1.5 seconds left on the clock in the first quarter—that concluded with a wide-open Howard conversion, most of the Rockets’ attempts at passes from long-range were badly bungled.
Chandler Parsons was the one bright spot on the Rockets’ roster. We may be witnessing a breakout season from Parsons, who recorded a remarkable 80% in both field goals and three-point attempts for his team-topping 24 points.
Omer Asik, who has been having a career season as the starting center for Houston, failed to deliver what is now his usual double-double in rebounds and points. Instead, he offered up a somewhat disappointing 9 rebounds and 8 points, although on 67% shooting.
Although he played a solid game with 20 points and 7 assists, James Harden appeared at times frustrated, not only with his own performance but with those of his teammates. Harden was loudly jeered by the crowd with every possession and seemed somewhat taken aback by it. He did, however, shoot at his normal 43%.
During Kevin McHale’s absence, it appears Kelvin Sampson has largely relegated Lin to the role of pure playmaker. Although he recorded 10 assists, he shot a dismal 22% from 9 attempts—although at least a couple of those were attempts to draw a foul that came to naught. In the second half, Lin seemed to lose confidence in his shooting. On several occasions, he eschewed clean looks in favor of a seemingly arbitrary pass. Indeed, on several occasions, he seemed to hesitate on an open look and disposed of the ball to his nearest teammate. Lin attempted one wide-open three-point, which failed to convert.
The Rockets were without Carlos Delfino, their sharpshooter off the bench. Other than Marcus Morris, who recorded 12 points on 42% shooting and grabbed 8 rebounds, and Terrence Jones, who shot his 8 on 57%, there was little spark off the Rockets’ bench.
As already mentioned, with Bickerstaff still at the helm and without clarity about the degree to which D’Antoni has already influenced his Lakers, one should avoid extrapolating too much from Sunday’s game. Moreover, we do not yet know how central a role Nash will play in D’Antoni’s system—and, correspondingly, what sort of role Kobe will have to play in it. And until Nash’s return, we can only speculate about what the Lakers’ march towards the playoffs will look like. However, many of the earlier possessions did bear the tell-tale fingerprints of D’Antoni’s uptempo offense, and most of them effectively disoriented the defenders and, consequently, concluded with clean conversions.