By Helene Elliott, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES—The Princeton offense has been officially and unmistakably expelled from the Lakers’ playbook, replaced on Friday by a fast-paced, freewheeling style that was far more entertaining than it was mindful of defense.
The Lakers hustled up court and sometimes hustled back, finally overpowering the Phoenix Suns, 114-102, at Staples Center in their final game before coach-in-waiting Mike D’Antoni takes over.
Kobe Bryant led both teams with 31 points and Metta World Peace scored 22, including five three-point field goals. Dwight Howard had 18 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks for the Lakers (4-5). Goran Dragic led the Suns (4-6) with 22.
D’Antoni, still recovering from knee-replacement surgery, was hired as Mike Brown’s replacement late last Sunday and ran his first practice on Thursday. Interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff, who won three of four games, said he’s more than ready to hand over the keys to the car to D’Antoni for the Lakers’ game against Houston on Sunday at Staples Center
“I will heal his knee,” Bickerstaff said of D’Antoni.
Bickerstaff might try directing his healing powers toward Steve Nash’s leg. The Lakers announced during Friday’s game that their prize point guard, who suffered a small, non-displaced fracture in the head of his left fibula on Oct. 31, will be out at least another week. Nash was examined Friday by team doctor Steve Lombardo, who will re-examine Nash next weekend.
Although Bickerstaff was in charge while D’Antoni watched from his office, D’Antoni’s influence clearly extended to the court. The Lakers played an up-tempo style and scored 17 fast-break points, a change from their previous deliberate and sometimes sputtering efforts. They hit 100 points on Friday with 9:26 left in the fourth quarter; they didn’t reach 100 in four of their first eight games and scored only 82 in losing to San Antonio on Tuesday.
Neither team played much defense, though Bickerstaff said he liked his team’s late efforts. It’s more likely that both teams were simply winded after a frantic early pace. The Lakers shot 47.2 percent for the game, including 54.3 percent in the first half, and Phoenix shot 48.9 percent, including 54.2 percent in the first half.
Each team mounted a strong run in the second quarter. After a three-point shot by Antawn Jamison gave the Lakers a 50-47 lead the Suns reeled off 15 straight points, fueled by Jared Dudley and Jermaine O’Neal.
But the Lakers responded with a 12-0 run to regain the lead, with Bryant—as usual—playing the role of stopper and re-starter. He had 14 points in the first half as the Lakers built a 62-57 lead.
Darius Morris, making his second straight start at point guard in place of the injured Nash (fractured bone) and Steve Blake (abdominal strain) had four assists in the first half and finished with six assists and five points.
Bickerstaff said before the game that he hadn’t gotten specific instructions from D’Antoni, but it’s clear the D’Antoni Era has begun. However, Bickerstaff stopped short of saying the Lakers had turned a corner by beating the Suns with D’Antoni’s still-developing strategy.
“The repetition that’s needed in those things that he has implemented will get us better,” Bickerstaff said, adding that the team can’t be whole until Nash returns and until Howard completely regains his timing following back surgery.
“We’re not there yet,” Bickerstaff said, “but we could be a pretty damned good basketball team, I don’t have any reservations about that.”
He said he hadn’t been told if he will remain on D’Antoni’s staff but it’s likely he will stay as thanks for getting the team through a rough patch and delivering it to D’Antoni. It won’t be “Showtime,” but the “Go time” era apparently will get its full-fledged launch on Sunday.