LOS ANGELES — Ever since Mike D’Antoni got a new knee and a new job in rapid succession earlier this month, his life has been a jumble of unfamiliar faces, grueling rehabilitation sessions and anonymous hotel rooms.
For a few hours Tuesday night, the veteran coach finally got back into his natural environment. And even if he’s not quite ready to roam an NBA sideline with his usual vigor, the Los Angeles Lakers are moving smoothly under his command.
D’Antoni made his debut on the Lakers’ bench Tuesday night in a 95-90 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. Nine days after he was hired and five days after he flew to Los Angeles to start work, D’Antoni finally coached a game on the sideline with no stumbles – either literal or metaphorical – during Los Angeles’ fifth win in six games.
“I’ve felt different for about two weeks now, so this feels good,” D’Antoni said. “Everybody is kidding you – and yes, the pressure is there – but you know what? This feels great. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I don’t know if (the knee) was any better today than yesterday, but it’s going to be the same tomorrow, too, so it’s good.”
Kobe Bryant scored six of his 25 points in the final two minutes while running the show offensively all night for the Lakers, and D’Antoni was quickly reminded how enjoyable coaching the superstar can be. Bryant has played for D’Antoni on various U.S. national teams, and the two Italian-speaking Americans already have a bond.
“It’s the same as it’s always been,” Bryant said. “He’s always very calm, but he still has an undertone edge to him. He’s the same D’Antoni. ... We’re just getting more in sync with each other.”
D’Antoni clearly isn’t at full strength just yet: He hobbled slowly on the sideline on the rare occasions he left his chair during play in the first half.
But he moved around with more vigor after halftime, protesting foul calls with a good measure of his usual theatrical vehemence.
When asked if he wanted to jump up more aggressively to protest occasional officiating calls, D’Antoni laughed: “I’m not that stupid. I’m good. Jumping is in the past. It’s gone.”
Eight months after leaving the New York Knicks late in his fourth disappointing season, D’Antoni is grateful to be back at work in such a prized position. He would have rested his knee for probably another month if the Lakers hadn’t hired him solely on the basis of phone interviews to replace the fired Mike Brown, skipping over Phil Jackson in favor of the offensive mastermind of the Phoenix Suns’ wildly entertaining teams of recent years.
Although the timing was pretty terrible, D’Antoni couldn’t pass up a chance to lead the talented Lakers, who went 4-1 under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff after a 1-4 start. Los Angeles has noticeably improved on both ends of the court even during D’Antoni’s brief tenure, playing with a freedom and passion they hadn’t yet captured during a winless preseason and that slow start for Brown.
D’Antoni isn’t surprised to see Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol chewing up opponents. He’s only surprised it didn’t happen sooner — and he suspects it still might have worked for Brown if he had more time.
“With this team, there’s no reason not to win every game,” D’Antoni said. “That’s our goal. It’s not, ‘Let’s get two out of three.’ We can win every game we play. ... I feel like we’re the best team in the league. We’ve got the most talent, so they can do what they want. We’ve just got to keep perfecting things.”
D’Antoni nearly made his debut on the Lakers’ sideline two nights earlier against Houston, but was persuaded to delay by trainer Gary Vitti, who was concerned about the 61-year-old’s mobility and late-game fatigue. D’Antoni felt much stronger after two more days of rest and room service, and he eagerly got on the court without the aid of the crutches that kept him upright during his first practice last week.
D’Antoni had the crutches after the game, when he got a lift in a motorized cart for the ride from the locker room to the team bus for the short flight to Sacramento. After roaring through a six-game homestand, Los Angeles has five flights in the next five days during a three-game, four-day road trip — a schedule that might not be ideal for his knee, but nothing the coach can’t handle.
“It didn’t hurt at all,” D’Antoni said. “I was a little peg-legged, but it was good. Adrenaline is a great thing.”