Coach Mike D’Antoni gave 11 guys at least 13 minutes of floor time in a stunning and exhilarating upset win over the Clippers on opening night.
The good vibe that was created among the players in the pre-season was evident through the first three quarters, as the Lakers trailed the more talented Clippers by only four points after 36 minutes. But the good vibe then erupted in full, and the Lakers ran all over the Clippers in the fourth quarter, outscoring them by a margin of 41-24.
The starters began the fourth quarter resting on the sidelines, but as the bench regained the lead and then extended it, D’Antoni decided to leave them in – and then they really began to roll. The unheralded and undersized combination of Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, and Jordan Hill made the speedy Clippers looks slow, out-hustling them to loose balls and imposing their collective will on the game.
How good was the Lakers’ bench? They scored 76 points on the night – the third most in franchise history – including the team’s final 48 points. The Lakers had seven players score in double-digits, and five of them were from the bench, led by Xavier Henry with a career-high 22 points on 8-13 shooting in 26 minutes.
Also scoring in double figures tonight were Jordan Farmar, Pau Gasol, Nick Young, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman.
What a change of approach for D’Antoni, who has established a reputation in his career – including last year – for not trusting his bench, and playing just seven- and eight-man rotations. I think he simply recognizes that his bench players this season may in fact be as strong as his starters. Early in the pre-season, he said he envisioned going with an 11-man rotation during the regular season, which is exactly what he did tonight.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game came with just over nine minutes remaining, with the bench having already erased the four point deficit to tie the game at 83-83. Jodie Meeks picked up a loose ball in his own end and raced down court, attacking the rim in traffic. He made the tough lay-up, was fouled, and hit the free-throw, opening up a three-point lead, which the Lakers would not relinquish.
My wife, quite accurately, remarked that “Jodie usually screws up that play.” Yes he does, but not tonight.
There was a wonderful moment when the television broadcast was eavesdropping on a 4th-quarter Lakers time-out, and we heard D’Antoni say to his players, “We can’t play little AND slow,” reminding his players that since they were small, they were going to have to be fast. The audacity of the coach in thinking the Lakers could run with these Clippers was exceeded only by the amazement of everyone watching that he was right – the Lakers, in fact, ran right over their crosstown rivals.
Another key moment of the game, in retrospect, came early in the third quarter. Just as the Lakers were prone to do last year, they came out flat in the second half, and the Clippers went on a quick 6-0 run, extending their lead to eight. D’Antoni, who is no fan of calling time-outs, called one quickly, irate at the starters’ lack of energy and focus. The starters returned to the floor and generated a 6-0 run of their own, and kept the team close throughout the remainder of the quarter, setting the stage for the bench’s fourth quarter heroics.
There was one rather wonderful play during the game that should also be noted. Jordan Farmar stepped to the free throw line late in the third quarter and missed both of his free throws. But he crashed the board on the second miss, got his own rebound, dribbled to the corner, to the top of the key, and back to the hoop for a lay-up. Ah, redemption.
Two of the key stats in the Lakers’ win were out-rebounding the springy Clippers 52-40, and shooting a phenomenal 14-29 (48%) from distance.
Finally, a somewhat disturbing note to end with: After the win, Steve Nash, who had a quiet game, said that something strange happened to him physically during the game, but he did not elaborate. It appeared that he injured his back when he slipped on the floor in the exact spot where Blake Griffin had just dived for a loose ball.
Those of us who follow Nash and the Lakers daily know that this does not bode well.
Lakers’ Player of the Game
I promise not to do this again, but on a night when 11 guys played at least 13 minutes but no one played more than 27, and on a night when 11 players scored between three and 22 points and grabbed between one and 13 rebounds each, the player of the game is Coach Mike D’Antoni. With all due respect to the greatest NBA coach of all-time, there was no way Phil Jackson was going to pull out the win tonight with this line-up.
Three cheers for the 11-man rotation, and may it blossom into a 12-man rotation once Kobe Bryant returns.
Wednesday, October 30, at 7:30 p.m. PST at the Golden State Warriors
This is an article by Craig Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter: @stevenashchroni