With the sweat soaking through his dress shirt, it seemed clear the anxiety wore on Mike D’Antoni.
As he stood up on the sideline coming off of recent knee replacement surgery, it appeared the adrenaline rush and a healthy dose of pain killers fueled him.
As he sat on an elevated cushion that looked eerily similar to Phil Jackson’s chair, it appeared Mike D’Antoni filled a seat that will leave the Lakers at least comfortable for now.
So what exactly to make of the Lakers’ 95-90 victory Tuesday against the Brooklyn Nets? Weight equally the conflicting messages D’Antoni offered afterwards.
“I’m really happy to get a win obviously,” D’Antoni said with a wide smile on his face. “I got about 15 minutes more of Vicodin so I’ll say something I shouldn’t say. Come hit me. I’m right at the end of it.”
Without prompting, D’Antoni this offered this appraisal.
“We weren’t clicking offensively and we didn’t play real well overall,” D’Antoni said.
The Lakers featured plenty of balanced scoring, including Kobe Bryant (25 points), Dwight Howard (23), Pau Gasol (17) and Metta World Peace (17). Yet, the team’s 95 points marks a steep dropoff from D’Antoni’s expectation that it scores at least 110 points per game.
The Lakers displayed brilliance at times.
With the Lakers trailing 86-84 with 3:38 left, a play unfolded that revealed the danger teams will have when guarding such a talented team. Bryant drove to the foul line andfound Pau Gasol at the top of the key. As the Nets’ defense cut toward him, Gasol then fed Howard for an open dunk.
The Lakers also appeared head-scratching at times.
Before the play mentioned above unfolded, the Lakers went eight minutes without a field goal. The Lakers shot 19 of 37 from the free-throw line. They also nearly squandered the game when the Nets pressured Gasol at halfcourt, prompting him to throw the ball up in the air toward Bryant. Thankfully for the Lakers, Bryant caught the ball and then made two free throws for the 91-88 lead with 17.1 seconds left.
But as far as what to make of D’Antoni’s coaching debut?
“It feels like we can get into a groove now, let things settle down,” Bryant said.
Yes, D’Antoni has an actual feel on what he can manage after having knee replacement surgery. He doesn’t need crutches. D’Antoni appears comfortable enough to stand and pace along the sidelines, whether it’s to draw up a play or yell at an official. The elevated chair D’Antoni sits in isn’t the same one Jackson once had. Plenty of his are no longer functional. The only existing one remains at the Lakers’ practice facility. And the company that manufactured it has since gone out of business. Yet, D’Antoni’s presence on that chair brings less offensive confusion, shorter practices and more encouragement to take open shots. D’Antoni also offered plenty of positive reinforcement, ranging from expressing confidence in Howard improving his free-throw shooting to expected World Peace to maintain his high scoring marks.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t hiccups.
The Lakers sorely miss the presence of Steve Nash and Steve Blake. But injuries to Nash (fractured left leg) and Blake (lower abdominal strain) will keep them out at least for the Lakers’ three-game trip, including at Sacramento (Wednesday), Memphis (Friday) and Dallas (Saturday). The Lakers’ bench scored only a combined 10 points. And with D’Antoni playing heavy minutes to Howard (40), Bryant (38), World Peace (38) and Gasol (38), it appeared only Bryant and World Peace were in shape.
“They’re getting paid a lot of money,” D’Antoni said. “And they’re going to earn every cent of it. I’ll wear ‘em out.”
For now, though, the Lakers are simply glad they no longer feel worn out from earlier adversities. They can flush out the elements of the Princeton offense out of their system. They no longer will feel the shock from Mike Brown’s firing following a 1-4 start. Though Bernie Bickerstaff finished his stint as interim coach with a 4-1 record, the Lakers will have more structure to their offense. They’ll soon move on from the team passing over Phil Jackson.
More importantly for D’Antoni, it shows he took a pun-intended right step into the first of many during his Lakers’ coaching debut.
“The pressure is there, but it’s great,” D’Antoni said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Margk Medina on Twitter.