LOS ANGELES — After just two practices and two games together, Kobe Bryant already can see Mike D’Antoni’s ideas and schemes improving the Los Angeles Lakers.
Although a triple-double isn’t usually part of Bryant’s game plan, he happily picked it up along with another win for a team that has been revitalized before their new coach has even taken the court.
Bryant had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists for his 18th career triple-double, and the Lakers ran past the Houston Rockets 119-108 Sunday night for their fourth victory in five games since firing coach Mike Brown.
Dwight Howard had 28 points and 13 rebounds, and Pau Gasol scored his 15,000th career point among his 17 as the Lakers returned to .500 by running away from their second straight opponent since D’Antoni took over their practices. Although D’Antoni and his surgically replaced knee haven’t even appeared on Los Angeles’ bench yet, his new team is already playing with passion and fluidity it hadn’t showed during a miserable start to the season.
“We’re just picking apart the defense,” said Bryant, who also had three of Los Angeles’ 10 steals. “We’re putting the defense in predicaments where they have to choose, and we’re making them pay.”
D’Antoni watched his second straight game from the Lakers’ locker room while interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff ran the bench. D’Antoni decided earlier Sunday to delay his debut, giving him at least a few more days to recover from surgery.
Bickerstaff improved to 4-1 while filling in for Brown and D’Antoni, who announced the longtime NBA coach and executive will remain on his staff — as long as the Lakers beat Houston, D’Antoni joked.
Bickerstaff’s job is secure after the Lakers ran away from the Rockets in the second half. From Bryant’s sharp passes to Howard’s rim-rocking, two-handed slams, Los Angeles played with flair, even while point guard Steve Nash missed his eighth straight game with a small fracture in his leg.
“Every day, there’s a little more” of D’Antoni’s system in the Lakers, Bickerstaff said. “It’s best to do a few things well and get it down, because all of those things, they have options off them.”
The Lakers already are running a significant portion of D’Antoni’s playbook, and it showed in a second straight free-flowing victory for a team that followed an 0-8 preseason with a 1-4 start, leading to Brown’s dismissal just nine days ago. The Lakers scored 114 points while beating Phoenix two days ago.
Chandler Parsons scored 24 points and James Harden had 20 for the Rockets, who have lost six of eight. Coach Kevin McHale missed his fourth straight game during a leave of absence to deal with a family matter.
“It’s tough, man. That’s our leader,” Parsons said. “We can’t do much except pray for his family and him, and hope he comes back soon. We love playing for him. But at the same time, Coach Sampson has done a good job. We have the same offense, same system, same principles on defense. So it’s not like we’re a different team. We still need to be playing a lot better, so there’s no excuse.”
Darius Morris scored a career-high 12 points for the Lakers while doing a decent defensive job on Jeremy Lin, who had 10 assists but just five points on 2-of-9 shooting. Lin visited with D’Antoni after the game, recalling their remarkable few months together last season in New York.
“He’s the ultimate players’ coach, very similar to Coach McHale,” Lin said. “I think he just gets it. He knows how to get the most out of his players. They’ll be just fine. What you saw tonight, they’ll probably be able to do pretty consistently, in terms of moving the ball and spacing. And with Dwight Howard down low, it’s tough because he has that whole key to roam in.”
With an offensive rebound with 5½ minutes to play, Bryant recorded his first triple-double since Nov. 3, 2010, at Sacramento. The NBA’s fifth-leading career scorer was in top form, breaking down defenders and hitting acrobatic shots with the flair of his best games.
But Bryant doesn’t have to win games by himself, and the rest of the Lakers were sharp as well. Howard attacked the basket relentlessly while his teammates set him up for high-percentage shots, and Metta World Peace contributed 15 points.
With a smooth jumper in the second half, Gasol became the 10th foreign-born player and the first Spaniard to score 15,000 NBA points. The four-time All-Star has won two titles with the Lakers, and the Staples Center fans gave him an ovation when his achievement was announced.
“I think it’s something to be proud of,” said Gasol, who joins a list of foreign-born scorers including Nash, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dirk Nowitzki and Dominique Wilkins. “I’m happy to reach this milestone, but I want to continue to be as productive as I’ve been throughout my career.”
— Associated Press