Commentary

Lakers accept the play it must be

D'Antoni & Co. understand the way to the playoffs isn't via a high-octane O

Updated: February 26, 2013, 2:47 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

DENVER -- Those who have been waiting to see what Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni's high-octane offense looks like finally saw it Monday night.

Too bad it was the Denver Nuggets playing it.

All that great spacing and shooting and scoring D'Antoni's teams have become known for over the years ... yeah, that was George Karl's Nuggets running the Lakers off the court in a 119-108 win Monday night.

[+] EnlargeMike D'Antoni
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsMike D'Antoni saw Monday in the Nuggets what he had originally envisioned for the Lakers. He knows now that those up-tempo ways aren't what will lead his team to success.
"They're good," D'Antoni said. "They spread you out and they shoot a high percentage.

"We just couldn't catch 'em."

D'Antoni was glum after the loss, but not unusually so. That wistful, pining, ''If they could only see what I see?" quality he carried around with him during the first few months of his tenure on the Lakers bench is gone now. He's either squashed it for good or put it in a place where it doesn't bother him as much.

What's become clear during the Lakers' modest revival -- they've still won 11 of their past 16 games despite Monday's loss -- is that they're no longer trying to play like one of D'Antoni's teams.

The coach -- and his team -- have adapted. Or at least accepted that the up-tempo style is not going to fit this team, this season. There are still elements of it that work, including the pick-and-roll game and the emphasis on spacing and rhythm. But the rest of it has kind of been shelved for now.

Dwight Howard simply can't play that way yet. His conditioning and athleticism are not there, just nine months after back surgery. He hasn't been as effective running the pick-and-roll with Nash as anyone had hoped. The Lakers don't have enough shooters or speed to space the floor out to run that pick-and-roll game effectively. We could go on and on.

Instead, the Lakers have moved on ... to what's going to work, to some common ground and consistency.

And for now, at least, everyone who needs to is buying in to the way the Lakers have decided to play.

"Buy in or resigned [themselves to it], we're doing it," Steve Nash joked.

Yes, they were blown out of Monday's game. But the Lakers didn't look like they were searching for something anymore Monday. They just didn't execute. The little things got them, not the big ones.

Dwight Howard struggled mightily at the free throw line (3-for-14), and that's after making his first two of the night. The team as a whole was 14-for-31 from the line and lost by 11 points.

"You can't do that on the road against a good team and expect to win," D'Antoni said. "But nobody's up there trying to miss. That's just part of life."

There's more:

The Lakers had 12 turnovers in the first half. They were awful at transition defense, giving up 22 fast-break points in the first half and a ridiculous 78 points in the paint. They shot 55.1 percent for the game, but they allowed Denver to take 10 more shots and make 55.7 percent of them.

"That team is like a track team," Kobe Bryant said of the Nuggets. "You almost have to overexaggerate getting back on defense. Literally nobody can go to the offensive boards.

"That speed got us. We lost to a good team. They've been together for a while, they're extremely well-coached and they did a great job. You have to tip your cap to them tonight."

The home crowd, which has watched its Nuggets get knocked out of the playoffs by the Lakers in three of the past five seasons, loved every second of it.

For the Lakers, it served as a reminder of the decisions they've been forced to make this year. The Nuggets' run-and-gun style was the vision D'Antoni was hired to bring to Los Angeles. For now, though, with no training camp and injured, ill-fitting personnel, it's just not to be.

The coach has taken a lot of criticism since he got to L.A. So have many of his players.

It's way too soon to start praising him. The Lakers are still in great danger of missing the playoffs after Monday's loss dropped them to three games behind Houston for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

But it's not too soon to recognize that D'Antoni also has made some difficult sacrifices since taking the job -- to his principles, his pride and his legacy.

"There's no job in the NBA that's easy," D'Antoni said, refusing to make a sympathy play. "You don't just fall out of bed and have things happen. It gets more complicated with injuries. I didn't know Steve [Nash] was going to be out. I didn't know Steve Blake was going to be out. I didn't know Dwight wasn't healthy 100 percent. So, yeah, there are some side issues. But everything is hard."

Asked if this was his most challenging coaching job, D'Antoni shrugged and said, "They're all tough. This is great because we've got great players. This is better than the others, which are challenging because you have no way out. There's a way out here."

Whether it's the right way or a comfortable way is still a matter of debate. But the Lakers seem to have agreed upon -- or accepted -- the way it must be this year.

That's big.

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