- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Thought Mike D'Antoni's offense was a bad fit for these Lakers? Guess what. They're not running it.
This shouldn't be a huge secret, considering that the person best fitted for running D'Antoni's sets, Steve Nash, has been playing off the ball the last two games.
When the Lakers hit their breaking point this week with a pathetic 0-3 road trip that brought them eight games under .500 at just past the midway point of the season, D'Antoni was taking just as much heat as anybody for being unwilling to change his system.
Well, playing Kobe Bryant, one of the top shooting guards ever to lace them up, at point guard is as drastic a change as they come.
"This isn't necessarily any offense," Nash said after the Lakers' 105-96 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. "This is bringing the ball down, calling over a pick and playing the game and because we have good players on the floor, when (Bryant) distributes we can make them pay for leaning too much to Kobe. When they lean too much to us, he makes them pay."
Bryant has excelled at running the point, picking up 28 assists in the two Lakers wins against Utah and Oklahoma City -- and so has the Lakers' offense as a whole. They're averaging 103.5 points per game while shooting a combined 84-for-154 from the field (54.5 percent) and had five players with 14 points or more against the Jazz and six players in double figures against the Thunder.
Only three times through the first 1,203 games of Bryant's career had he played more than 30 minutes and tallied more assists than field-goal attempts. Now, he's done it two times in a row in games Nos. 1,204 and 1,205.
"I think we played easy," D'Antoni said. "Everybody can contribute and Kobe starts it, just sharing the ball and he hasn't forced a shot."
Even more efficient than the Lakers offense as a whole has been Bryant's individual output. He's 15-for-22 (68.2 percent) in the last two games.
D'Antoni was asked if Bryant can keep this up.
"Oh yeah," D'Antoni said. "This is easier than the other way. This is much easier, I think. This is great. I hope he's having fun, that's the biggest thing and understanding this is the way to go."
The "fun" part of that answer can't be overlooked, because everyone knows how much Bryant enjoys scoring points. There's a reason why he became just the fifth player in league history to reach the 30,000-point plateau earlier this season. Bryant was averaging 28.7 points per game coming into Sunday, third best in the league and in striking distance of Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant who is No. 1 with a 29.6 average.
There was a thought that Bryant's streak of four straight 40-point games early on last season messed up that campaign from that point on because it left him not only chasing wins but also gunning for a third scoring title. He is averaging just 17.5 points per game in the last two games. He'll have to be OK with scoring in that range if this will have any chance of working.
It sounds like Bryant has accepted it willingly.
"I'm just open up to all possibilities," Bryant said. "You just try to lay in bed at night and think about how we'll attack this thing and what are we going to do, what I can do to help us win ballgames. It seems like I kind of got my finger on the pulse a little bit."
L.A. was close to flatlining before this change came about. When things got bad in Memphis, D'Antoni likened the Lakers to a mismatched All-Star team.
"Have you ever watched an All-Star game? It's god-awful," D'Antoni said. "Everybody gets the ball and goes one-on-one and then they play no defense. That's our team. That's us."
The thing about All-Stars, however, is they're also really good at their sport. They're talented enough to play a slight variation of the way they're used to and still be just as effective. They're also intelligent enough to realize that individual sacrifice can benefit the group. The problem is, being superstars, they're usually stubborn enough that it can take time before a change can really take place.
It's taken some sacrifice from the coach who can be stubborn, too. D'Antoni has had to relent to what his players wanted. But was it his idea? What inspired Bryant to grab control of the wheel is a little clouded.
"(D'Antoni is) telling us to go but sometimes you can't get those engines to start up that fast," said Dwight Howard, who has been the most vocal critic of D'Antoni's offense this season, clamoring for more post-up opportunities.
Are the Lakers listening to D'Antoni's direction?
"We listen," Howard said. "But we're the guys out there playing. We see things that sometimes the coaches may not see. We're an opportunity fastbreak team right now because we don't have a lot of speed. When we get the ball in the half court, we still can move and do all the things out of the offense. He wants us to stay spread, which for the most part we do."
Insubordination? Inmates running the asylum? Maybe for a team without the talent that the Lakers have. But not for these guys. It has worked because D'Antoni has let go a little and the players have committed to being on the same page.
It shouldn't matter who should get credit for the change, because it's in everybody's best interest associated with the Lakers to simply win games by any means necessary.
"Finally we hit rock bottom and who knows why things stick (but) it does and they decided to do this," D'Antoni said. "And, it's good."
If you think of the only other part of the season when the Lakers looked this good, it was their 4-1 record under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff. The reason they looked so good under "Bernie Ball" was because the veteran coach basically rolled the ball out and told them to trust their instincts. They're doing that again now even better because that air-it-out meeting in Memphis seems to have built trust in one another to go along with those instincts.
D'Antoni's been praised by Bryant himself as an "offensive genius," but he's had to sacrifice his ego to realize his system wasn't ideal for this group, just like Bryant's had to cool down his individual scoring, and Nash has had to deal with not always having the ball in his hands for the first time since Jason Kidd was his teammate, and Howard has had to adjust to less shots, and Pau Gasol has had to accept coming off the bench.
"There is an adjustment but I think the key for us is to not look at the past and how we played in the past individually and say, ‘Hey, I had success doing it this way,'" Nash said.
Just like D'Antoni has had to bend from how he's coached in the past.
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