LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks for their biggest victory of the season, but coach Mike D'Antoni wasn't breathing a sigh of relief on Christmas.
"You know the NBA season … it spirals out of control easily and we got high expectations," D'Antoni said. "We just got to keep getting better."
The Lakers are better off than they were a couple weeks ago. Despite a slow start to the season that saw Mike Brown fired and D'Antoni chosen over Phil Jackson to replace him, the Lakers have used a five-game winning streak to improve to 14-14. With Steve Nash back running the offense, D'Antoni is still hopeful of delivering on the championship aspirations befitting a roster this talented.
"It's not an easy position to be in," Nash said of D'Antoni taking over the Lakers. "Everyone expects the world out of this team.
"On paper it looks easy, but it's not. But no training camp and with a team that wasn't really in position to play [up-tempo], let alone wasn't mentally conditioned to play this way, it's a little tough transition for us."
D'Antoni arrived to Los Angeles on crutches after having knee replacement surgery. He expected to have Nash running the point when he made his coaching debut on Nov. 20 against Brooklyn. When asked if he ever regretted taking the Lakers job, D'Antoni said: "The only thing I thought when I took the job was that [Nash] would be back [playing] before I got to L.A. I was trying to hold on and wait."
D'Antoni preached over and over again to anyone who listened that the Lakers would be dramatically better on both ends of the floor with Nash. D'Antoni didn't always handle the criticism well: When the Lakers lost in New York two weeks ago, he snapped at a reporter who questioned whether the Lakers practice defense.
"I was just holding steady," D'Antoni said. "I wanted to have Steve first to see what kind of problems we had. I didn't want to start yelling and screaming to solve problems, 'Do this, do that,' when a lot of things aren't problems. If we want to play the caliber we want to play, you have to have somebody like Steve around."
Nash's return has more Lakers touching the ball and playing freer. And as D'Antoni predicted, the defense has also improved because the Lakers are playing with more effort because they're happier on offense. D'Antoni's idea to move Bryant to small forward and start Darius Morris while bringing Metta World Peace off the bench has also worked. Pau Gasol has awoken, as well.
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"Tonight, they were a little bit more aggressive," Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony said. "Kobe got it going. Steve Nash hit some big shots down the stretch. When you got a guy like Steve Nash who can make shots down the stretch, it's kind of tough.
"Those guys know how to play. That's what they have been waiting for: Steve Nash to get back with Kobe and Gasol."
Yes, this Christmas was a merry one for D'Antoni, who is now 9-9 as Lakers coach. Even so, the veteran coach has been around long enough to know he won't be measured by December victories.
"People can be extremely positive of how you are performing and the job you are doing the entire regular season, the entire playoffs," Bryant said. "But if you lose in the Finals, you are the [expletive] worst. If you suck for the entire season and win the Finals, people don't give a [expletive] about what happened before then. It's all about what you do in the Finals.
"It doesn't matter what you do on Monday or Tuesday. It matters what you do in the Finals."
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