- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LAS VEGAS -- They say a player's game is made in the summertime.
During the offseason, a lefty works on his right hand, a guard develops a post move, a center hones in on his midrange jump shot.
They also say wins and losses in the summer don't count on your career record; good news for assistant coaches working the sidelines for NBA teams in Las Vegas.
I spent Monday behind the Los Angeles Lakers' bench at a summer league game -- and inside the huddles and timeouts -- during a 106-56 loss to the Miami Heat. An insignificant game on the face of it, but sometimes it's in the games that don't count where players and coaches are made.
Everyone is elevated at an NBA summer league game.
For Monday's Lakers-Heat game, this means Chuck Person becomes the Lakers' head coach instead of an assistant to Mike Brown. It means that Darvin Ham and Phil Handy are the Lakers' top assistants, instead of complementary guys like they were last season behind John Kuester and Quin Snyder.
It means that Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock, Darius Johnson-Odom and Robert Sacre -- four second-round picks selected between Nos. 41-60 in the last two NBA drafts -- are the four most important players on the court for the Lakers.
It means assistant trainer Marco Nuñez is occupying Gary Vitti's seat on the bench closest to the scorer's table. It also means video coordinator Tom Bialaszewski and coaching assistant Kyle Triggs are out on the court during the game, cutting each other up with their own brand of gallows humor during the embarrassing blowout, rather than back in the locker room cutting up film.
It's not just the people getting temporary promotions, either. The Thomas & Mack Center, opened in 1983 and home to the UNLV Runnin' Rebels, is hosting the game. Even the players' uniforms -- reversible with iron-on letters and numbers -- are promoted from practice jerseys to game attire.
The Lakers start Christian Eyenga, Sacre and Morris along with Chinemelu Elonu (the 59th pick in the 2009 draft by the Lakers) and Toure' Murry. The Heat's "Big Three" are Norris Cole, Terrel Harris and Dexter Pittman, who were all bench players on Miami's championship team this season. Cole is the most well known of the bunch, having scored eight points in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against Oklahoma City, and plenty more retro fashion points by sporting a flattop box haircut.
For the rest of the Lakers players on the bench, they are doing whatever they can to make a positive impression on the coaching staff. Ater Majok, the Lakers' 58th pick from a year ago who did not make the team like fellow second-rounders Morris and Goudelock and instead played in Slovakia, tried his hand at being a vocal leader.
"The bench has got to talk," Majok implored. "Come on!"
Reeves Nelson, perhaps the most notorious player on the roster after being dismissed from the UCLA basketball program last December, was conscious of changing his bad-boy reputation, responding with full eye contact and a respectful, "Yes, sir," when receiving instruction from Person.
The chatter coming from the bench is constant and spills out onto the court, mostly when the Lakers are playing defense. Handy yells "Hands!" to alert the Lakers to be active in plugging up the passing lanes. Bialaszewski screams, "Stay down!" Triggs chimes in with "Straight up!"
The Heat jump out to an early 11-4 lead. Pittman has three dunks as Eyenga has twice come back up the floor to tell the coaching staff, "It's my fault," for not making the proper defensive rotation on the backside.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are doing a poor job of protecting the ball on offense. The Lakers trail 33-11 after the first quarter after coughing up nine turnovers, leading to 15 Miami points.
Many of the turnovers resulted from Sacre getting the ball dug out from under him by the Miami guards. The Lakers didn't do Sacre any favors, however, by bouncing their post-entry passes, negating Sacre's height by making him bend down to receive them.
"Hey, stop throwing bounce passes to the post, please," Person called out to Eyenga, his patience wearing thin. "He's seven feet!"
There are distinct roles for each of the Lakers' staffers on the bench. Person makes the substitutions, calls plays from the sidelines and directs the huddles. Ham carefully picks his spots when to address the group, embracing the less is more approach. He would rather get a larger point across during a timeout like, "We are a shrink team, we can't be in no-man's land (on defense)," than chirp in during every possession. Triggs sits behind the bench keeping track of every play Miami is running as the game unfolds, occasionally cross-checking a prepared list of Heat plays to make sure his initial read was correct. Bialaszewski helps him out when he picks something up: "Hey, Kyle, that last play was 'Pistol Hold.' "
Handy, who is in charge of player development, has been in the gym sweating through drills with the players almost daily since the season ended, and he notices the fine line between coaching and over-coaching.
"Damn," Handy says at one point to Person. "They're looking at me like I'm fathering them or something."
Nuñez is the jack of all trades. Aside from being on hand to remedy any immediate medical situation, he is in charge of tracking timeouts and fouls.
When the clock ticks under three minutes in each quarter, he reminds the staff, "Timeout, next dead ball," knowing that a scheduled TV timeout is coming. He holds the clipboard to give to Person when he requests it to map out plays. He also is responsible for knowing the names of the referees.
"What's his name?" Person asked Nuñez after the ref made a call he didn't agree with.
"His name's 'blind,' " quipped Bialaszewski before Nuñez could consult his referee list.
Frustration begins to mount as the Lakers are getting their doors blown off for the second time in four days (they lost 90-50 to the Golden State Warriors in their summer league debut).
Goudelock is told to be patient on offense and pleads back to the bench, "It was an open shot!"
Ham shakes his head and says to Person, "Does he know how long we've been involved in this league?"
Later, when Goudelock fails to sprint back on defense, Person is beside himself.
"Goudelock is f------ fat!" Person tells the coaches.
"I'm going to work his ass off!" Handy replies.
Johnson-Odom, who the franchise has high hopes for after sending $500,000 to Dallas on draft night to acquire him with the No. 55 pick, is subbed out at one point.
As he makes his way to the bench, Person clears the seat next to him and invites Johnson-Odom over.
"Sit right here, young man," Person says. "I called 'Shake,' you didn't know where to go."
"You called 'Fist,' " Johnson-Odom replies.
Person: "I called 'Shake.' "
It's generally healthy dialogue, only with an edge to it because both coach and player are starting to throw their hands up as they're both suffering the Heat beatdown and running out of ways to stop it.
The Lakers fall behind 50-20 with 2:18 remaining in the first half and Person calls timeout. He takes the clipboard from Nuñez and simply writes "50 Def" on the top half and "20 Off" on the bottom half and shows it to his team.
"This is what happens when you try to do it by yourself," Person says in disgust. "Doing it by yourself doesn't work."
As miserable as the game is, there are some bright spots.
Eyenga, who the coaching staff has raved about for his offseason workouts and who the team likes to think of as the first-round pick it didn't have in this year's draft because he's still just 23 years old, shows hints of his promise.
Late in the second half he is double-teamed in the corner with just four seconds on the shot clock. He puts it on the floor, drives middle and finishes with a nice baby hook shot in the lane that goes in and beats the shot clock. He also shows some leadership, pulling Elonu into a huddle on the floor when he was wandering away. They even run an inbounds play for him a couple times called "Congo" (named after his native land), where he throws the ball in and then curls off the man he passes to for an open look.
Morris, who weighed 190 pounds during his sophomore year at Michigan, shows off a chiseled, 217-pound frame that he has worked on with strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco. He finishes just 4-for-17 from the field with six turnovers, but he shows an innate ability to use his quickness along with his bigger body, to create shots for himself off the dribble and get into the lane almost at will.
Sacre makes 5 of 6 free throws -- not bad for a 7-footer.
The Lakers show good camaraderie and closeness for the most part, even using nicknames with one another. Morris is "D-Mo." Johnson-Odom is "D.J." Sacre is "Sacks." Julian Khazzouh, who struggled to hit open shots, was still affectionately called "Jules."
Bialaszewski provides some levity, asking Triggs for a piece of gum from the gum bucket the team keeps on the scorer's table.
"What kind?" asks Triggs.
"Give me a Bazooka ... with a good fortune," Bialaszewski shoots back.
Nuñez tosses a towel back to Lakers equipment manager Carlos Maples, who is stationed behind the bench, and smirks as he holds his follow-through as if he just launched a shot.
Truth be told, it was better form than the Lakers players had Monday. As a team, they shoot just 18-for-68 from the field (26.5 percent) and 2-for-12 from 3 (16.7 percent).
When the final buzzer mercifully blares, signaling the end to the 50-point massacre, half the Lakers players make a zombie-like walk to the locker room, forgetting to exchange pleasantries with the Heat players who are lining up.
"Damn, they don't want to shake nobody's hands," mutters a Miami player.
After the game, in the tunnel in front of the locker room, players and coaches are equally despondent.
"I work hard, but the thing about what's going on right now, I just played like ..." said Eyenga, trailing off. "I don't know, man, it's just crazy. It's crazy."
With two games remaining on the summer league schedule, after the Lakers started with an 0-3 record, Eyenga tries to remain optimistic.
"If we just play like a team, we got a chance," he says.
But the optimism quickly fades as he continues to talk about what just happened.
"I got nothing to say, man," Eyenga says. "I can say nothing because the score was crazy and we just give up. We just give up."
Ham is talking to no one in particular.
"S--- ain't AAU where they lose and play another game right after," he says. "Hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake. This is their livelihood."
It's Ham's livelihood, too. This loss might not count against his permanent coaching record, but that doesn't mean it doesn't sting.
As for the players using the summer to improve, nothing during Monday's game made them better players. But the memory of the loss will fuel the desire to work on their off-hands, to develop their post moves and hone in on their midrange jumpers.
Postscript: The Lakers play much better the next day against the San Antonio Spurs, shooting 51.7 percent from the field and cutting their team turnovers from 24 down to 14 before losing 92-81.
Morris shoots 9-for-9 from the field, scoring 24 points to go along with four assists. Sacre goes 8-for-8 from the foul line and grabs seven rebounds. Khazzouh makes a couple of open shots.
"I credit everybody, the coaching staff and the team," Morris says afterward. "We really looked at (the Miami loss) and learned from it. It showed out there on the court. Everything in our attitude and how we approached the game. This is a great opportunity for everybody and I think today we really valued it instead of going out there and floating around. As a team, we ran our sets. We played together the whole time, on offense and defense ... That's the purpose of summer league, to try to get better from game to game."
For this group of Lakers players and coaches, summer is a key time.