PHOENIX — Steve Nash is injured and Mike D’Antoni won’t be making his coaching debut until Sunday, yet there still will be something strange Friday night knowing that those two pillars of the Suns’ SSOL era have joined the other side.
It’s a new era in Phoenix and Los Angeles as well, with Kobe Bryant preparing to go to war with the two men who defined a team he couldn’t beat with a crummy supporting cast, which irks him to his day as we learned last season when he said he still hates the Suns.
Yet even someone as hyper-competitive as Bryant can have a short memory if it can help him win in the present.
“Like anything else, I hated you guys forever and you all hated me,” D’Antoni said Thursday in his introductory press conference. “As soon as Mitch [Kupchak], gave me the word I love you guys. It’s unbelievable. And I can’t be bought. Yeah, right!”
Such is life in the NBA, where mortal enemies become partners on the path to a championship. Even without them participating in the game, it will definitely be weird knowing they are now there by Kobe’s side.
Suns coach Alvin Gentry said on the radio for this to become a full-blown rivalry once again the Suns must take a few victories, as right now it looks more like a big brother-little brother scenario with Dragic (Nash), Gortat (Howard) and Brown (Kobe) all spending their formative years in the shadow of a Lakers star.
With Nash still out with a small fracture in his left leg, Dragic said he’s disappointed he won’t be able to face his mentor.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “For defense maybe it’s going to be a little bit easier, not so many pick-and-rolls. I wish him all the best, a quick recovery and a good season.”
Even though the Suns are incredibly a half game ahead of the Lakers, Gentry noted before the season that his team isn’t exactly chasing the Lakers, and at this point they would settle for not falling behind by double digits every game. Despite their weak record, the Lakers currently rank eighth in both offensive and defensive efficiency after some early struggles at the defensive end.
This could be an awkward game for LA with Bernie Bickerstaff coaching his last contest as interim head coach, but with the excitement of the D’Antoni era ahead and all the Suns ties on their team, one’s got to figure the Lakers will be up for this one regardless of the makeup of the Phoenix roster.
Dragic for one cannot wait to play in the electric environment Staples Center is sure to provide.
“This kind of game against Lakers, Miami is always nice to play,” he said. “They win so many championships. I know they’re struggling, but every game we have to win and it’s going to be an important game for us. We’re playing on the road, it’s going to be tough, but why not? They struggle, and we just have to play our game, try to be focused for the 48 minutes of the game and play our game.”
Q and A with Land O’ Lakers
I sent some questions to Andy Kamenetzky to get his take on all that’s transpired in Lakers Land in advance of this matchup. I also answered some questions for the K Bros about the Suns over at ESPN LA.
MS: Was D’Antoni the right choice to be the next Lakers head coach?
AK: Yes. When all signs seemed to be pointing towards Phil Jackson’s third go around in L.A., I actually thought Mike D’Antoni was the better fit, and still do.
D’Antoni will make the best use of Steve Nash, and last season drove home how desperately much the Lakers need a perimeter play-maker beyond Kobe Bryant. To place Nash in the triangle, a system that by definition takes the ball out of his hands, strikes me as illogical. Either he’d be forced to make the same uncomfortable early-season adjustments as during the ill-fated “Princeton” era or Jackson would need to adjust to accommodate the kind of player he’s never coached. Both scenarios feel unideal. And while this roster may not be built for 48 minutes of run and gun, that’s also not all D’Antoni did during his best seasons in Phoenix. Those Suns used to pick and roll opponents to death from the halfcourt, which I suspect we’ll see a lot of in L.A. Between Nash, Kobe, Dwight Howard (the league’s best roll man) and Pau Gasol, you have four outstanding options to create pick-and-roll sets. The Lakers may not be loaded with 3-point shooters, but then again, Nash has improved many a player’s outside touch, so maybe that’ll change. And in the meantime, this team has many good passers and cutters, which may offset that weakness.
Plus, D’Antoni makes basketball fun, and that element has been desperately absent the last couple seasons for the Lakers. Yes, defensive commitment and team-wide discipline will be needed to win a championship, but the ability to just go out and play will go a long way.
MS: Obviously aside from the point guard, D’Antoni will have very different pieces at his disposal than he did with Phoenix. We know there will be lots of pick-and-rolls, but how do you expect this offensive attack to differ from the D’Antoni Suns?
AK: I imagine D’Antoni will look to make use of post-up options in Howard, Gasol, Kobe (and to a lesser extent, Metta World Peace) that he’s never had before. On the surface, taking time to post a ball handler runs counter to what D’Antoni’s attack, but he’s smart enough to recognize the value of a new weapon and creative enough to figure out the adjustments. For that matter, D’Antoni’s never had a scoring wing like Kobe, and I imagine he’ll tinker to find a way to incorporate that asset. And as I said earlier, I also don’t expect this team to run as much as the “Seven Seconds or Less” teams. (However, I expect the Lakers to play much quicker. Not necessarily in overall pace, but just the speed with which they enter sets. Over the last two seasons, this team’s had a terrible habit of burning up 7-10 seconds before even initiating any action, which has resulted many a buzzer-beating desperation heave from Kobe. I don’t picture this continuing under D’Antoni, and it will pay immediate dividends.)
MS: Last year at this point in the season, a big deal was made about how Kobe “hates” the Suns. Now perhaps the two biggest faces from that era of Suns basketball that he despises so much are on his side. What’s your take on that, and how do you see Kobe adjusting to playing with Nash in this system once he’s finally healthy?
AK: Kobe values winning above all else and admittedly got worn down from increasingly carrying the playmaking load, especially post-Lamar Odom. Nash helps on both counts. Even if Kobe still fumes over those playoff losses in 2006 and 2007, and likely thinks crappy rosters cost him at least one or two MVP trophies owned by the point guard, he still respects the guy’s talents, which is the bottom line. Ditto D’Antoni, with whom Kobe has a fond relationship dating back to the coach’s and Jellybean’s playing days in Italy.
Besides, if Kobe can recruit Raja Bell and Matt Barnes, opening his arms to Nash and D’Antoni ain’t a big deal.
As for the Kobe-Nash backcourt, I’m beyond intrigued. I imagine Nash will play off-ball a little more than he’s accustomed — and given Nash’s shooting skills, that’s not the worst thing in the world — but with D’Antoni in the fold, the rock will ultimately reside often in his point guard’s mitts. (As well it should.) Thankfully, Kobe’s exceptionally good playing off-ball, and his days in the triangle has made him a master at finding creases. There will inevitably be frustrating possessions when Kobe monopolizes the ball, and they’ll need to feel each other out to develop the perfect balance. But I‘m very confident about the finished product. If nothing else, Kobe and Nash will form the NBA’s smartest starting backcourt, hands down.
- D’Antoni on the Suns coming so close to a title: “We had to put up with some injuries. We had the suspensions, the fifth game [in 2007 vs. San Antonio] we’re going back home, 75 percent of the game you win the fifth game, you win the series. That’s what makes me sleep at night.”
- On the Spurs during his Phoenix heyday: “Friggin San Antonio … they’re better than us. Every time they beat us they won a championship.”
- On the Suns’ adjustment to Nash and the new style in 2004: “When we got him in Phoenix it took about an hour and a half. He’ll run the offense like nothing.