New-look Lakers drawing rave reviews after Mike D’Antoni’s debut

The Lakers are different under new coach Mike D’Antoni. Don’t take our word for it. Here’s what others were saying after the Lakers defeated the Brooklyn Nets 95-90 in D’Antoni’s debut on the bench Tuesday night at Staples Center:

“I would say it’s been weird, but in L.A. there is no such thing. It’s unfortunate anytime you see a coach lose his job. It’s always tough. For us, we just have to put one foot forward and continue to work. Coach D (D’Antoni) has come in here and done a fantastic job.”
–Kobe Bryant, Lakers guard.

“I don’t think they are thinking as much. As an athlete, you want to play the game on instinct. Part of what they were doing (with that Princeton offense) is that no one really knew what they were doing. You can see now the energy and confidence with which they are playing.”
–Greg Anthony, former NBA player on NBA TV Tuesday night.

“The best thing (D’Antoni) does for this team is give them a calming presence. He’s making guys comfortable, letting them know they can trust the process. When you have someone with a good presence inside, it really allows you to relax and focus just on your job. And when you’re in L.A. (with that circus), you need someone to control that because, if not, your attention will be everywhere.”
–Chris Webber, former player on NBA TV.

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Dwight Howard happy to be in Los Angeles rather than Brooklyn

Dwight Howard’s preferred destination last summer was said to be Brooklyn, where he would team with Deron Williams in an attempt to give the newly relocated Nets a fresh identity after years of playing in the wilds of New Jersey.

But the Orlando Magic traded Howard to the Lakers instead, and he couldn’t be happier to be in sunny Southern California.

“I’m in L.A.,” Howard said Monday. “There’s no need to talk about what could have happened. I’m happy being here in L.A. Like I’ve said, the fans have always been great here and now that I’m on the team, the fans … they have been unbelievable to me.

“So, I’m just happy about that. … I think this is the best situation for me.”

The Lakers and the Nets play Tuesday at Staples Center.

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Mike D’Antoni can’t say if he’ll make his Lakers coaching debut Tuesday

Mike D’Antoni couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say whether he would be on the bench for the Lakers’ game Tuesday against the Brooklyn Nets at Staples Center. He said Monday he didn’t want a repeat of Sunday when he said he hoped he would make his Lakers coaching debut, but couldn’t do it.

D’Antoni spent the second consecutive game in the Lakers’ locker room, watching them play on TV while having physical therapy on his newly replaced knee joint. The Lakers defeated the Houston Rockets two nights after beating the Phoenix Suns.

“I’m going to try,” D’Antoni said. “We’ll see. We’ll talk to Gary tomorrow and see how it goes. Sunday I said I would and it didn’t work out. I don’t want to say, yeah, and have it not work out again. We’ll just see. It’s a lot better. Every day it gets 10 points better. Hopefully, I’ll be ready to go.”

D’Antoni referred to Gary Vitti, the Lakers’ athletic trainer.

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Dwight Howard says he’s nervous about making his Lakers debut … whenever that is

Tomorrow’s story today …

Dwight Howard was a little off his game Thursday. Howard still doesn’t know when he’ll make his Lakers debut, and he sounded a little grumpy when asked for, oh, about the 18th consecutive day when his surgically-repaired back might be sound enough to allow him to play in a game.

He sure looks good in the brief moments reporters have witnessed of him near the tail end of recent scrimmages, when they’re allowed into the gym. He won’t play in Friday night’s exhibition game against the Sacramento Kings in Las Vegas, however.

Conditioning rather than back strength is the issue at the moment, and it finally seemed to gnaw at him during Thursday’s question-and-answer session with reporters. He was a little edgier than in the past, his impatience with some queries quite obvious.

“There’s no point in you asking the same questions every day,” he said.

In time, the easy-going Howard returned.

He even admitted he would be jittery for his Lakers debut, whenever it is.

“Like I told Steve (Nash), I think I’ll be a little nervous out there for the first time,” Howard said of his first game after he was acquired from the Orlando Magic on Aug. 10. “But he said he would help me through it and, hopefully, it will be OK.”

Why would a six-time All-Star who has played in the NBA Finals be nervous?

“New town, new city, I think everybody is expecting a lot out of his team and they’re expecting a lot out of me,” Howard said. “So, I have to make sure I keep all of that out of my mind when I’m playing and just have fun.”

Including tonight, the Lakers have four exhibitions to play. They open the regular season Oct. 30 against the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center. Howard said earlier this month he hoped to play in several exhibitions before the opener.

“I don’t want to go out there fatigued and injure something else, because most of the time that’s when you have injuries,” he said of his slow recovery. “I don’t want to take a step back. I’ve come too far from where I was (after last April’s surgery).”

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Jordan Hill returns to Lakers’ practice court

Jordan Hill participated in roughly two-thirds of the Lakers’ practice Thursday after he was diagnosed last week with a herniated disc in his back. Hill hasn’t been cleared for contact and won’t play in Friday’s exhibition game against the Sacramento Kings in Las Vegas.

The Lakers expect Hill to provide valuable minutes as a backup power forward. Their second unit is heavy on guards and short on size. The Lakers liked Hill’s play after they acquired him from the Houston Rockets in the Derek Fisher trade last March.

“He didn’t do anything live,” Lakers coach Mike Brown said, referring to Hill’s non-contact workout Thursday. “I think he’ll do the non-contact stuff (today), and they’ll probably re-evaluate where he is. They haven’t given me a specific timetable yet.”

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Thinking about NBA referee Greg Willard

Couldn’t sleep Tuesday night. Kept thinking about Greg Willard, an old classmate at Long Beach State who probably officiated his final NBA game hours earlier, a forgettable Lakers loss to the Utah Jazz at the Honda Center.

Willard learned he had pancreatic cancer last spring.

I thought something was wrong when I watched him work Game 5 of the Lakers’ second-round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He looked winded after the first quarter. His chest heaved and he went to the scorer’s table for a drink of water.

That wasn’t like him. He was always in great shape. But that’s pancreatic cancer. It’s not one I’d wish on my worst enemy. I’ve already lost two friends to it, and it hurts to think how young they were when they left us.

Heather Stevens was a co-worker for a while at another newspaper. She was smart and funny, a single mother trying to break into a merciless business. We ran into each other after many years in a Chinese place on P.C.H. in Long Beach.

She had it, showed off a surgical scar on her belly and vowed to beat it.

Graig Woodburn worked for a paper in the Inland Empire. He was an avid cyclist, loved writing about hockey and practiced law. When the Ducks won the Stanley Cup, he lifted the trophy above his head and screamed when he thought no one was looking.

He slipped away without a chance to say goodbye.

I can’t honestly say Willard and I are close friends. We had a few journalism classes together at Long Beach State back in the 1980s, and talked often about sports. He was older by a few years, more assured as he walked the campus, far more serious.

I learned he wanted to be a referee rather than a journalist.

A few years later, a colleague, another Long Beach State alum, told me Willard was on the officiating crew at his high school football game that night in Orange County. Soon, I covered a prep game Willard worked. We talked and laughed during a timeout.

That’s the way it went for years.

I began covering the NBA in 2001. Willard had been officiating in the league for years. We would exchange greetings. Reporters had better seats in those days. Courtside was the norm. Now we’re farther from the action and it’s tougher to swap, “Wassups.”

Then the elevator doors opened in a hotel in Salt Lake City and Willard joined me in the box on the morning after a Lakers-Jazz playoff game in 2010. My mother-in-law died two days earlier and I should have been anywhere but Utah at that moment.

Talking with Willard, catching up, made me feel better.

It was our longest conversation since college.

We spoke again Tuesday night after the exhibition in Anaheim. I looked into his eyes and he looked into mine. I knew he knew I knew. It was tough. I wasn’t sure what to say. He assured me he was hanging in there. I wanted to cry. He was thin, gaunt.

I put my arm around him and told him, “If there’s anything I can do …”

I wasn’t alone in wishing him well, and took some comfort in that fact.

Kobe Bryant knew this was Willard’s final game. He wouldn’t let him off easily, barking at him after a call in the first half. Willard stared back. That’s the way NBA officials are trained to be, quiet and dignified even as players question their ancestry.

“Honestly, tonight, I wanted him to ‘T’ me up for old time’s sake,” Bryant told me after the game. “I didn’t want him to have any kind of special night. I wanted it to be just like it’s always been. I wanted to drop a couple of F-bombs on him.

“I wanted it to be like how it’s always been. That’s the best way.”

Later, Bryant went to visit Willard in the officials’ locker room. He didn’t want anyone taking photos or scribbling down what was said or done. He didn’t want anyone to know. But I knew. I was waiting around hoping for a word, too.

Actually, what I wanted to do was scream at the top of lungs that this wasn’t fair.

Before the game, my wife sent a text to tell me about the death of a family friend. Mary Gates was elderly. She lived a long and full life. She was a nurse who married a doctor and raised a large and fun-loving family.

Her passing made a little more sense. It was her time.

Willard is only 53, and I can’t stop thinking about him.

I hope you won’t either. Say a little prayer, keep him in your thoughts the next time you watch a game.

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Pau Gasol sits out Lakers’ exhibition loss to Utah

Tomorrow’s notebook tonight …

Pau Gasol sat out the Lakers’ 114-80 exhibition loss Tuesday night to the Utah Jazz at the Honda Center because of what can be best described as training camp fatigue. He wasn’t bruised or bloodied. Nothing was broken or strained or sprained.

Gasol, the Lakers’ starting power forward, was simply tired.

Antawn Jamison filled in for him and scored seven points on only 2-for-11 shooting.

Lakers coach Mike Brown decided to err on the side of caution and not push too hard. Brown has said repeatedly he doesn’t care if the Lakers lose all eight of their exhibition games this month. These games don’t matter. The ones later in the season and in the playoffs do.

If this were March or April, then Gasol would have played against the Jazz.

Since it was Oct. 16, he sat out.

Gasol wasn’t the first starter to take a seat for a relatively minor reason. Kobe Bryant didn’t play in last Wednesday loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in Ontario after suffering a strained right shoulder while dunking during practice one day earlier.

Dwight Howard, one of the Lakers’ two prized additions last summer, didn’t play for the fourth consecutive game after undergoing season-ending back surgery last April. If there is a timetable for him to make his Lakers debut, the team isn’t sharing it with reporters.

Gasol’s absence from the court was a surprise. He chatted briefly with a reporter before the game, talking about Spain’s draw with France in World Cup soccer qualifying earlier in the day. He also said he slept for most of the bus ride from El Segundo to Anaheim.

Brown said Gasol, like Bryant last week, argued to play.

“Pau had a long summer. He looks a little fatigued,” Brown said.

Gasol, like Bryant, played in the London Olympics, logging heavy minutes for the Spanish team that lost to Bryant and Team USA in the gold medal game. Both players had lengthy training camps and a number of exhibitions leading up to the Games, too.

Brown shifted Jamison to the power forward spot after Jordan Hill suffered a herniated disc in his back last week. Jamison has played both positions during his career, with Brown saying of the veteran, “he just keeps on keeping on.”

Lakers fall again

Bryant scored 23 of the Lakers’ 24 points in the third quarter, but they couldn’t keep pace with the Jazz after the game’s first few minutes. Bryant had 31 points, five rebounds and two assists in 29 minutes, 10 seconds for the Lakers (0-4).

Steve Nash played only the first quarter and scored two points. He had four turnovers and then was replaced by Steve Blake and Chris Duhon, who are battling for the backup point guard position. Blake had on point and Duhon had four.

Gordon Hayward had 13 points for Utah (3-1).

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Reggie Theus hired to coach Lakers’ D-League team

Reggie Theus, a former Inglewood High School standout who went on to play for 13 seasons in the NBA, was hired Monday to coach the Lakers’ developmental league team, the D-Fenders. Theus served as a TV analyst on Pac-12 games last season.

“Reggie’s extensive NBA background coupled with his experience developing players at the collegiate basketball level will make him a great asset to our franchise,” said Joey Buss, the D-Fenders’ team president and CEO.

Theus was an assistant coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2009 to ’11 after he served as the head coach of the Sacramento Kings. He also coached New Mexico State and was an assistant coach at Louisville.

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Lakers backup Earl Clark out indefinitely because of groin strain

Earl Clark, one of a handful of players trying to win a seat on the Lakers’ bench this season, suffered a strained groin and will be sidelined indefinitely, the team announced Monday. Clark, a backup forward/center, played limited minutes in each of the Lakers’ first three exhibitions. He won’t play Tuesday against the Utah Jazz in Anaheim.

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Lakers coach Mike Brown has a booster in Antawn Jamison

Tomorrow’s story today …

Antawn Jamison needed a job last summer.

The Lakers needed to fill a vacancy for a veteran backup forward.

So, it seemed natural the Lakers would sign Jamison to a one-season, $1.3-million contract. But there was another reason Jamison decided to give the Lakers a try, and it wasn’t only because he’s in search of his first championship ring after 14 seasons.

“He was one of the reasons I wanted to come here,” Jamison said.

“He” was not superstar guard Kobe Bryant, although it could have been just as easily the reason Jamison signed. Nor was it future Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash. Nor was it center Dwight Howard. Nor was it Pau Gasol. Nor was it Metta World Peace.

No, Jamison referred to Lakers coach Mike Brown.

“To me, it was a no-brainer,” Jamison said of signing with the Lakers.

Jamison played for Brown for part of the 2009-10 season, Brown’s last with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Brown was fired after the LeBron James-led Cavaliers won 61 games during the regular season, but failed to win the NBA title.

The Cavaliers operated as if on autopilot back then. Brown was in his fifth season, with James and a cast of young players sticking to a relatively simple game plan and winning with spectacular ease at times during the regular season.

There was little tinkering to be done with the Cavaliers.

However, Jamison found Brown and circumstances changed dramatically when the Lakers began training camp Oct. 2. Brown was constantly at work, stressing the small details and leaving zero to chance as he began his second season with the Lakers.

“He has to put his stamp on what he wants us to do,” Jamison said of Brown.

There is a new game plan, a variation of the free-flowing Princeton offense, and a bunch of new players this season. There are talents to be blended, styles to be meshed and, ultimately, games to be won. The honeymoon period is over for Brown.

“He’s not willing to let things go through the cracks now,” Jamison said. “He’s really on point. I think they had a comfort zone in Cleveland where they could kind of just go through the motions. … He wants us to do things the correct way. It’s good.”

Brown has been intense, but he’s also been willing to back off with the players. Because of the NBA lockout that delayed and then compressed training camp and the regular season, Brown pushed and pushed and pushed last season. The Lakers practiced or played games for 19 consecutive days before he gave the players a break.

He’s slowed the pace dramatically during this training camp.

Sunday marked the Lakers’ second day off in two weeks.

“He’s the perfect fit for this type of situation,” Jamison said when asked if Brown’s experience made him the right man to guide this championship contender. “I don’t know how many coaches could come in here and put their stamp on this team.”

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