Hungry, Humble Los Angeles Lakers Looking to Validate Mike D'Antoni's Vision

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Hungry, Humble Los Angeles Lakers Looking to Validate Mike D'Antoni's Vision
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LOS ANGELES – It was supposed to be just another day on the calendar when Kobe Bryant sat there, healed and aged.

It was instead an entirely Kobe-free inspiration for Lakers fans, who haven’t had something this pure and real to cheer about since Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals.

The two Lakers who played the most in Tuesday night's season-opening victory over the Clippers were Jordan Farmar, who was out of the NBA last season, and Xavier Henry, who was left out of alphabetical order in the Lakers’ media guide this season because he’s at the end among the middling “Lakers training-camp invitees.”

Farmar and Henry drove their underdog spirit right through an overconfident Clippers team, for sure. Time after time, the duo shrugged off the sort of bad plays that had gotten players benched by other coaches to follow up with great plays.

Even the clearly fragile psyche of career underachiever Wesley Johnson added to the story of perseverance for the Lakers. Johnson shook off all the missed shots and botched plays to hang in there on defense against Blake Griffin, whose only statistical record from his eight minutes in the fourth quarter were two turnovers.

But the guy who best represented the Lakers' unlikely success wasn’t a player. For the very first time, Mike D’Antoni looked like the better coaching choice than Phil Jackson to lead these Lakers.

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Jackson saw it himself, offering on Twitter: “Fun to watch a team play with great emotion and purpose. Laker game was played for the faithful…now it’s on.”

While the world has been writing off the Lakers this preseason and speculating on Bryant's recovery, D’Antoni has been Mr. Happy. Why? Because he hasn’t had to navigate superstar egos and fret about Dwight Howard not listening to anything he says.

More of the frustrations from last season bubbled forth from D’Antoni after this victory, as he talked about how “cold” it was last season and how it’s no longer required for “one guy to be the star every night.”

Everybody wants something beautiful, and for D’Antoni, it is coaching basketball without the bull. He is a master at drawing up plays, and his honest enthusiasm for unleashing a player’s best talents is uncommon in this league.

He did not win in New York because he couldn’t get Carmelo Anthony to buy in, but D’Antoni empowered Wilson Chandler to look like Shawn Marion and freed Jeremy Lin to morph into a more exciting version of Steve Nash.

D’Antoni clearly struggled to mesh Bryant, Howard, Nash and Pau Gasol last season, when many of them didn’t trust their bodies amid the immense pressure to win. But D’Antoni feels like he compromised so many of his principles last season that it wasn’t even that the Lakers fell short of his best effort as a coach. In fact, it wasn’t even his kind of coaching.

As much as we can talk about guys like Farmar and Henry feeling freed to play now, D’Antoni is flying around the gym right with them.

“Chemistry means a lot,” D’Antoni said, “and they’re good guys…and they’re coachable.”

On Tuesday night, the once-dubbed “uncoachable” Bryant did all he could to keep the focus on those Lakers who were active. Dressed all in black, Bryant stayed at the end of the row of seats behind the bench despite hardly being able to see and never came out to strut in front of the TNT cameras during timeouts.

It’s a star-driven league and there will be plenty of other nights for a healthy Bryant to dominate or for Gasol to step up, both early in games and late. After Tuesday night's game, D’Antoni’s pregame assessment of the Lakers' roster could suddenly be spun from the negative to the positive.

“There really wasn’t much separation from the 11th to the fourth guy,” said D’Antoni in explaining why he is going with a fat 11-man rotation to start this season.

"The Lakers are for real this year,” Henry proclaimed after the game.

Whether Henry is right or not, this one was at least a demonstration of the kind of exciting, reach-for-the-sky style that D’Antoni can teach if the day actually comes when he is still the Lakers' coach and Bryant is no longer the Lakers’ star.

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“I’ve been stuck in the corners a lot,” Henry said of his three years in Memphis and New Orleans. “When they believe in you, you can do some great things in this league.”

It was Nash who first proved that for D’Antoni. Nash was the unconventional NBA superstar, daring to become all that he could be in the free-flow Phoenix attack with D’Antoni as his benefactor.

The Lakers' opener was not the night for their superstars, especially Nash. He took an early tumble, kept reaching for the upper left leg that caused him so much trouble late last season, had a limited impact on the game and lamented afterward without elaborating that “strange things happened” to him physically.

Still, no one knows better than Nash how playing for D’Antoni can feel like leaping from a paint-by-numbers coaching scheme to an approach akin to designing modern art.

Nash stressed two words after the win that he wants to see remain a part of the Lakers’ approach.

“Hungry and humble,” Nash noted.

The Lakers were neither last season, but if hungry and humble is the D’Antoni way, then the much-maligned guy who isn’t Phil might just have something to teach everyone accustomed to titles in Lakerland this season.

 

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter

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