By Ben Golliver
The Lakers defeated the Nets 95-90 on Tuesday in coach Mike D'Antoni's debut, improving to 5-1 since firing Mike Brown and snapping Brooklyn's five-game winning streak.
• Those demanding a full-on offensive barrage, the kind that typified D'Antoni's work with the Suns and Knicks, were left wanting with this one. The first half in Los Angeles hinted that a shootout was in the works, but both teams tightened up defensively in the second half, and the Lakers actually went seven-plus minutes without a field goal to start the fourth quarter.
There were a number of factors, but most of the credit goes to two star-studded starting lineups playing big minutes, and playing hard, in a matchup of big-market teams that they surely knew was receiving extra attention because of D'Antoni's presence. Nets forward Gerald Wallace was in full "Crash" form, tallying five steals and three blocks, while Dwight Howard blocked four shots, even sneaking in an unwhistled goaltend that he volleyballed into the second row behind the Lakers' bench.
Another issue: No one on either team found the range from deep, save Metta World Peace, who knocked down four of his nine three-point attempts, celebrating his last one by rubbing Nets coach Avery Johnson's head, an act that might just prompt a league office investigation given his reputation and the slippery slope of possibilities that type of conduct represents. Aside from the Artist formerly known as Artest, the teams combined to shoot 9-for-35 (25.7 percent) from beyond the arc. The Nets compensated by leaning heavily on center Brook Lopez's mid-range game (the Brooklyn center scored 23 points on 11-of-18 shooting), while the Lakers fed Howard at the rim and turned Kobe Bryant loose, or as loose as he could get with Wallace shadowing his every move. Both sides had their offensive moments, even in the slow-down second half, but this wasn't a full-on barn-burner. Obvious disclaimer: The Lakers were without injured point guards Steve Nash and Steve Blake.
• During his memorable introductory press conference, the one in which he admitted to being under the influence of pain medication, D'Antoni thought out loud about how difficult it would be to keep his starters fresh by managing their minutes. He acknowledged that building a team around four high-priced players required a certain amount of care, but he also admitted to possessing the impulse to ride his best players, especially in tight games. Tuesday's game was very tight: Neither team led by more than three points in the third quarter and the fourth was back-and-forth, with the Nets opening a six-point lead before giving it back to lose by five thanks to four late Bryant free throws.
With Nash and Blake unavailable, D'Antoni played just nine players, and he used just two of his substitutes -- point guard Chris Duhon and big man Jordan Hill -- for more than 10 minutes. The Lakers' bench is a known trouble spot, and it produced just 10 points on 5-for-15 shooting in 60 minutes. That's not much.
The flip side was that four Lakers starters -- Bryant (25 points), Howard (23 points and 15 rebounds), World Peace (17 points and eight rebounds) and Pau Gasol (17 points and 11 rebounds) -- each played 39 minutes or more. For context, only two players in the league are averaging 39 minutes: Bulls forward Luol Deng and Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum. Entering the game, Gasol was leading the Lakers with 37.2 minutes.
After the game, D'Antoni took a strong stance on that minutes distribution. "They make a lot of money," he said, according to the Orange County Register. "They're gonna earn every cent of it. I'm gonna wear 'em out."
The load on each individual will lessen significantly when Nash gets back -- every man counts when you're playing this short of a bench -- but the sustainability of this approach given the age of the Lakers' starters will be a major question over the next six or seven months.
• Johnson threw a wrench at D'Antoni on his first night, employing a "Hack-a-Dwight" strategy in the fourth quarter, as Howard just couldn't find his touch at the free-throw line. Howard, who entered the game shooting 50.5 percent this season and is a career 58.6 percent foul shooter, finished just 7-for-19 (36.8 percent). When Johnson turned to the strategy twice in the fourth quarter, Howard responded by making at least one free throw, and those points represented most of L.A.'s production during that bone-dry stretch.
It wasn't just Howard. As a team, the Lakers finished 19-for-37 (51.4 percent) from the foul line, their worst free-throw performance since going 12-for-31 against the Mavericks in an opening-night loss.
"I don't know who is in charge of free-throw shooting," D'Antoni joked after the game in his press conference. "I'll have to find out. The thing with Dwight, I hope you know, they started Hack-a-Dwight, he made one out of two, that's one point per possession, that's pretty good basketball, especially down the stretch. If they want to do that, that's fine. I have no problem." Hack-a-Dwight didn't have major strategic implications, as Johnson relented fairly quickly and D'Antoni never removed Howard to avoid the fouls. Once Nash is healthy and the engine is fulled revved up, it's safe to assume that Hack-a-Dwight will be employed on a regular basis by teams looking to break the Lakers' rhythm and limit Howard's effectiveness. They'll have to try something. Even though his back is still not 100 percent healthy, Howard shot 8-for-11 from the field, with 10 of his attempts coming inside the paint. That's a devastating success rate, one that will only get better once he gets back to working with Nash, his elite set-up man. In the meantime, Gasol filled in admirably as a playmaker from the frontcourt with seven assists, including one possession in which he received a pass on the perimeter from Bryant, turned quickly and tossed a perfect lob that Howard finished with authority.