Finally, the Los Angeles Lakers got rid of all this run-and-gun, Bernie Bickerstaff-shootout nonsense and got a coach who not only could get the win, but keep the opponent to fewer than 100 points so the Staples Center faithful could score some free tacos.
Yes, in a nice little piece of basketball irony, after a wide-open first half the debut of Mike D'Antoni on the Lakers sidelines became an old-fashioned slugfest down the stretch. Over the final 24 minutes the Nets scored only 33 points and L.A. was held to 39. So much for the idea D'Antoni's mere presence would cause the scoreboard to pre-emptively short circuit just to save itself the wear and tear.
Indeed, it was a very successful first go for the new guy. Here are six takeaways:
Big picture: Howard is getting there
There are aspects of his defensive game that still aren't quite there, but overall Dwight Howard continues to show progress in the final stages of his recovery from back surgery. Tuesday's numbers -- 23 points on 8-of-11 from the floor, plus 15 boards, 4 blocks and 3 assists -- were very strong. And he periodically swallowed up Nets players venturing into the paint with quick and decisive help. Anyone wondering how much bounce he has certainly was encouraged by the way he elevated in sending a Deron Williams shot somewhere deep into the 100 level. His hands seemed steadier -- that he was holding the ball a little higher Tuesday night didn't hurt -- and despite foul trouble his activity down the stretch was high.
Little picture: Make your free throws
There will be nights Howard punishes teams who happily send him to the line. There will be others when he lays bricks like a guy trying to join the mason's union and he'll get the Hack-A-Dwight treatment. Tuesday was the latter. Howard was sent to the line a whopping 19 times, making only seven free throws. That's a lot of points left on the board, particularly in a tight game. To be fair, while Howard was obviously the volume offender in the missed FT department, his teammates weren't exactly prolific, running around 50 percent for most of the game, until Kobe Bryant knocked down critical freebies down the stretch.
Bryant continues rolling along
His first half was the picture of efficiency: 11 points on seven shots, plus three rebounds and a trio of assists. In the second, as the game became muddier, Bryant, like the rest of his teammates, found less room to operate; but he still came up with huge points down the stretch. With 1:58 remaining, he hit a beautiful running hook off the drive to put L.A. up by three. And after a couple of missed jumpers, he earned a pair of free throws with 17 ticks left after Brooklyn had cut the lead to one.
Final line: 25 points on 15 shots, plus four rebounds, five dimes (to accompany a litany of hockey assists) and one steal.
Morris got an education
In fairness, Williams has made the lives totally miserable for far more accomplished players than Darius Morris. Nonetheless, it was a tough night for L.A.'s second-year point guard. As the first half wore on, the Nets started picking on the kid. Williams did it in isolation, busting out a couple killer crossovers. One of the strongest guards in the league, Williams was effective posting Morris. Brooklyn also laid a few brutally solid screens on him. To make matters worse, because Bryant had three fouls, the Lakers couldn't bring a lot of help Morris' way. In only 5:49 of second-quarter burn, Williams scored 10 points and Morris picked up three fouls of his own.
It wasn't for lack of effort. Give Morris credit for putting out maximum effort and not backing down, but there's a reason Williams is an all-world talent.
Offensively, Morris grew a little precocious from time to time, adding a little too much dribble, the occasional poor shot or lazy pass (one of which in the fourth turned into a Gerald Wallace dunk). But also had some good moments, with a beautifully threaded pass to Dwight Howard on the break probably being the best. He ran into some bad luck, however, watching two converted jumpers get wiped out by whistles. All told, it wasn't surprising to see D'Antoni jimmy his rotation around to give Chris Duhon, who played a very steady game, minutes down the stretch.
Gasol has a key role to play in the offense
He's not going to stretch a defense beyond the 3-point line, but Pau Gasol's ability to move the ball out of the high post opposite the high screen was key. On multiple possessions, the Lakers used pick-and-roll action with Bryant and Howard, and Kobe went away from the roll man to Gasol at the opposite elbow. Gasol fed the corner, he fed Howard, he found himself open for jumpers or he skipped a pass over the defense to the weakside corner. Gasol finished the night with a team-high seven assists … and could have had a few more. On a team without top-end 3-point shooting, his ability to make the right pass, grease an offense and perform multiple functions will be huge. On top of the passing, he added 17 points and 11 boards.
The Lakers again defended well down the stretch …
... And, actually, for the entire second half. Brooklyn had 57 points at the half and finished with 90. Williams had 18 at the half and finished with 22. Brook Lopez had only two field goals in the second half. And so on.
I've said it before. I'll say it again: There's no reason the Lakers can't and won't play good defense under D'Antoni, even when they're fully functioning offensively, which they weren't Tuesday. But it's still encouraging to see them clamp down.