Grading Mike D'Antoni in His First Game as L.A. Lakers Head Coach
In the most highly anticipated event of the young NBA season, head coach Mike D'Antoni made his debut with the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night. The result was a 95-90 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, a game that saw the Lakers overcome 19-of-37 shooting from the free-throw line.
While the players had their fair share of memorable moments, the true question was this: How did D'Antoni fare in his Lakers debut?
You're about to find out.
Many fans will jump the gun and claim that it was Mike D'Antoni's fault that the Los Angeles Lakers did not score as well as they should have. But it was not D'Antoni who held the Lakers back on that end of the floor.
It was the Lakers' free-throw shooting.
For the game, they shot just 19-of-37 from the charity stripe. That's 51.4 percent, which is the primary reason the Lakers struggled to put up points.
Not D'Antoni's offense.
Dwight Howard was an unacceptable 7-of-19 from the free-throw line, a problem exacerbated by Brooklyn's hack-a-Howard approach.
Again, not D'Antoni's fault.
Kobe Bryant, who entered the game shooting 89.4 percent from the line, missed two of his first three attempts. Even Pau Gasol was only 3-of-6 from the line.
Fortunately, Bryant hit his final six attempts to secure the win.
D'Antoni had the Lakers functioning well from a schematic standpoint. There were high-percentage shots, well-timed motion and the proper scoring opportunities to placate all involved.
Unfortunately, the Lakers' problems handling the Nets' late-game press and their own free-throw shooting limited the grade D'Antoni receives.
When you hold a sharp-shooting opponent to 41.5 percent from the floor, you had to be doing something right defensively. When you hold Deron Williams and Joe Johnson to a combined 12-of-34 shooting, your defensive execution deserves even greater praise.
Even if Brook Lopez did tear you up for a full three quarters.
Truth be told, D'Antoni did a good job defensively. He rotated his defense well on the perimeter and made the proper substitutions when his players began to struggle with their matchups.
The fourth quarter proved that the Lakers can be elite defensively. From the 5:18 mark on, they allowed the Nets only six points. Two came on a Kobe Bryant miss that led to a fast-break basket before the defense could react. Another two came on free throws with 13.5 seconds remaining.
If you still think the Lakers can't smother an opponent defensively, you're off your rocker. The defense was phenomenal when it needed to be Tuesday night.
Much of that was D'Antoni's doing.
Understanding of Personnel
Entering the Mike D'Antoni era in Los Angeles, the primary fear was that the uptempo offense would not fit the Lakers' personnel. One of the keys to this system is placing the power forward in the corner and utilizing the center in screen-and-roll situations.
The screen-and-roll game was effective against the Nets. But D'Antoni showed just how versatile he can be in his offensive schematics by allowing Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill to work out of the post rather than the corner. He also flashed Kobe Bryant into the post and utilized screens to create open looks, a move that helped Bryant hit five of his first six shots.
Although the Lakers did not convert their free throws, D'Antoni found a way to run plays that got the team to the line, as they attempted 37 free throws. The Lakers' ability to get to the line surpassed Brooklyn's hack-a-Howard approach.
D'Antoni was successful in understanding his personnel's strengths and limitations, as demonstrated by his otherwise inconsequential substitution of Chris Duhon for Darius Morris for defensive purposes.
Mike D'Antoni did an excellent job of creating the proper plays for his scorers. What he failed to do, however, was properly manage the game. That allowed the Nets to gain control throughout the first half of the fourth quarter.
That's why the Lakers scored just three points through that period's first seven minutes.
D'Antoni brought his starters back in at the 7:33 mark of the fourth quarter. This came after a three-minute scoreless stretch during the third quarter, a precursor to the scoring woes that came in the fourth.
This was a game that should have been won by a much larger margin. Poor free-throw shooting was a factor, but so was D'Antoni's inability to manage the game and give the right players the opportunities to score during droughts.
Considering D'Antoni did so well in substituting players defensively, it's strange to see him struggle to make the right moves offensively.
Use of Reserves
Mike D'Antoni's distribution of minutes to his reserves was questionable. Chris Duhon saw 25 minutes of play, but Jordan Hill was limited to 17, and Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks played just nine each.
His defensive moves made sense. On a night in which the team's free throws weren't falling, however, it's puzzling why Meeks, a career 88.4 percent shooter, was left on the bench.
D'Antoni's moves on defense were sensible. Darius Morris struggled to defend Deron Williams, which led to Chris Duhon entering the game and pressing Williams to a greater level.
Even Hill's limited minutes made sense due to his inability to rebound and score at a respectable pace. Hill was just 2-of-7 from the floor and grabbed only two rebounds.
If you were able to observe the Los Angeles Lakers' sideline conversations, you saw the players intently studying Mike D'Antoni's every word. Although it is only the first game of what will be a high-profile season in Los Angeles, this was impressive on D'Antoni's part.
Unfortunately, players appeared to be out of sync on the floor, which is far more important.
D'Antoni was vocal on the sideline and appeared to be in every ear on the roster. He was even up on his wobbly leg, defending his players on foul calls and orchestrating the pace of the Lakers offense.
Unfortunately, the Lakers were struggling to find each other on offense. The team's difficulty handling the Nets' full-court press late in the game nearly led to a game-changing turnover.
Fortunately, Kobe Bryant went Calvin Johnson and saved an errant Pau Gasol pass. Communication had nothing to do with that.
Overall Grade: B
Mike D'Antoni did a much better job than he's likely to receive credit for. He displayed an unexpected focus on defense, progressively grew to understand his personnel's limitations and controlled the pace of the game.
Most important of all, he got the win.