It would have been a fitting debut for Mike D'Antoni to go up against the team with which he had experienced his greatest success and to do it with Steve Nash by his side, but alas, it was not in the cards. In his place, Bernie Bickerstaff presided over a fairly straightforward win for the Lakers, but you could have erred in assuming that D'Antoni was on the sidelines nevertheless. The Lakers pushed the pace on offense, ran an awful lot of pick-and-roll, and the ball moved fluidly to the open man off penetration or via simple passing on the perimeter. As D'Antoni stated in his press conference, one of the basic principles of his offense is that you search for the best shot on the floor -- the ball finding "energy" so to speak -- and while this appears to be a simple concept, it bespeaks his preference for a rhythm offense in which the flow on the floor creates opportunities instead of predetermined playcalling in the Mike Brown mold.
Last night, the Lakers followed this philosophy to great success, helped by a lot of players doing the simple act of hitting their shots. Surprise, surprise: put players in a system in which they feel no pressure to execute plays, are going through the motions of the offense naturally and shots find their way into the net. With the talent on the roster, you want a framework under which the sheer talent on the roster can express itself, and you can see as a result why it is unsurprising that so many players express a preference for playing under D'Antoni. A slow grind-it-out strategy of controlled possessions is for a different roster and perhaps even a different era, let alone for this team. If we can take any positive from D'Antoni's hiring, it is that the team finally seems to be finding an identity to settle on, and that in and of itself is worth the tedium and drama of the Lakers' coaching change.
- Jordan Hill -- Okay, at this point, it is less a discussion of whether Hill is the Lakers' best bench player, but whether he is the Lakers' third best player period. His offensive rebounding numbers are just absurd: an otherworldly 24.2 ORB% leads the league by a vast margin -- number two is Kenneth Faried with a 20.8 ORB%. To put that into perspective, if he kept that up over the course of the season, it would be the best mark in league history. Better than Dennis Rodman, Moses Malone, or any other rebounding demon you care to mention. Obviously, there is almost no way he can keep this up -- furiously knocks on wood -- but it is extremely impressive nonetheless. And Hill is no slouch elsewhere on the court, hitting shots in the post and from midrange, the latter item of which should prove especially valuable in D'Antoni's offense. On defense, he is shaping up to be a great pick-and-roll and help defender, with a spectacular block on Marcin Gortat as he rolled to the rim for a two handed dunk. His lone weakness on that end is in straight-up post defense against bigger centers, as he is still a bit of a tweener in the frontcourt, but you wouldn't be remiss in calling him the Lakers' most impressive player last night as he keyed a Laker run at the start of the fourth quarter. Bravo, sir. Bravo.
- Kobe Bryant -- This was the first game this year in which Kobe's efficiency slipped, as he finally needed volume to put up his points. To his credit, this was partly since he clunked a number of wide open jumpers he has been making in previous games, and he did not stop doing his usual thing: attacking the rim, scoring off the pick-and-roll, and helping to direct the offense on the floor. Best of all was his six assists against only one turnover, a more than welcome change given the Lakers' point guard situation and the role he will be asked to play as an occasional pick-and-roll operator in D'Antoni's offense. One wishes he could play a little less, however, given how well the next guy on the list played last night.
- Jodie Meeks -- Meeks had his best game in a Lakers' uniform and still didn't crack ten minutes played, unfortunate not only for the amount of time Kobe had to spend on the floor, but the fact that Meeks was a genuine difference maker on the court. He finally got into a good rhythm -- and for shooters, rhythm means everything; again, there is a reason a lot of players look a lot better under the auspices of D'Antoni's system -- and limited his dribbling to getting a pick, taking a dribble or two, and going up immediately for a shot. He also has been the only player on the floor to realize that after Howard sets a pick, it might be a good idea to hit the league's best roll man with a pass as he goes to the rim. In short, Meeks did nothing outside of his expected role, but he did it all well and that's what the Lakers need off the bench.
- Metta World Peace -- On that subject of shooters finding a rhythm, how about MWP? He is going to be left open all day behind the arc and he reciprocated with five threes, all in the corner with his feet set off penetration or a post kick out. His only other two makes were two surprisingly component drives to the rim from the wing, admittedly against a truly terrible defender in Michael Beasley. We thought that MWP would adapt well to the Princeton offense given he was one of the few players on the roster who had experience in such a system -- twice under Rick Adelman in Sacramento and Houston -- but one can see how an offense that gets the ball to MWP in rhythm for catch-and-shoot opportunities also fits his style of play well; moreover, the more he is limited to those shots, the better for the offense all-around.
- Pau Gasol -- Pau finally got over the hump on his midrange jumpers, hitting five in a row to start the game off penetration or the pick-and-roll before Phoenix finally took the shot away. Unsurprisingly, that is going to be a big part of his game just as it was last year since Pau is the only big on the roster aside from Hill who can be part of the pick-and-pop and act as a release valve for spacing purposes. And even though we keep on saying that Pau needs to get in the post more, he could buttress that argument by performing better there as well. All those fadeaways can be safely replaced by his repertoire of hook shots or if he doesn't have position, a pass out and subsequent re-post. Defensively, Pau is still struggling against the pick-and-roll at either frontcourt spot, his deficiency appearing especially glaring given how adept Howard and Hill are against it. This noted, he still makes a lot of positive plays at that end and is hardly a liability, but D'Antoni could be well served by figuring out a way to compensate for Pau's limitations in this regard.
- Darius Morris -- Although his defense wasn't up to par for a good portion of the night, Morris appeared much more comfortable on offense, notching six dimes off penetration, including a sick, no-look pass to Hill for a dunk. Morris' visible improvement across these few games has been arguably the best unintended side effect of the Nash injury, as he gets at least another week in the rotation until Nash returns. His athleticism and size for the position offer interesting potential and by all accounts, he is capitalizing on it. Even last year, during which Morris looked every bit a nineteen year old rookie, his defense was decent and he never really got the reps he needed to develop. Well, he is doing so now and given that we all expect Nash to seamlessly integrate into the offense when he returns, the current state of affairs could reap some fruit in the long-term.
- Honorable mention goes to Dwight Howard, who put up a very decent line of 18 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks, and some solid overall defense, but he still hasn't looked like the spectacular Dwight we are expecting. Naturally, his physical state is to blame, but he could stand to fix his painfully apparent turnover problem. He brings the ball low every single time in the post and opposing players are swiping at it time and time again with success. Of course, it doesn't help that no one on the team besides the aforementioned Meeks has been able to find him for easy dunks on the roll or on cuts, something that should change when Nash gets back, but he has to fix this issue either way.
- Defense -- On a night in which the Lakers put up a 56 TS%, it is hard to blame anyone on the offense other than Darius Johnson-Odom and Morris trying to score before time expired. No bueno, youngsters. Even Antawn Jamison and Chris Duhon, both of whom have not been performing well to say the least, were inoffensive at the very least while on the court. But the defense for most of the night was lax, not bothering to rotate to shooters or trap the only person capable of running the Phoenix offense in Goran Dragic aggressively off the pick-and-roll. Laker turnovers frequently ended up as Phoenix scores and in general, the Lakers' transition defense was fairly miserable. The Lakers tightened the screws in the fourth as the bench unit led by Hill and Dwight, without a doubt the Lakers' best defensive frontcourt, led a big run, but beforehand, the kind of defensive effort we saw against the likes of San Antonio was nowhere to be found.