“I always knew I could play defense,” Young told reporters after last night’s win over the Detroit Pistons — one in which Young sealed the game by drawing a charge on Josh Smith. “But being around a winning atmosphere, things start to change a little bit.”
Winning atmosphere. 17 games into last season the Lakers were 8-9, one game behind the pace of this year’s team, but the tone is dramatically different from last season. This, of course, is following a year in which high expectations were failed to be met, an in-season coaching change, and myriad superstars who couldn’t find a way to come together. Frustration and disappointment was the theme for the 2012-13 Lakers campaign as it was a team riddled with talent that couldn’t find a way to win.
This season, however, began on the opposite hemisphere of expectation and everything we’ve wanted from this group has been exceeded — largely because of performances Young, Wes Johnson and Shawne Williams had in Detroit. This is a team that is buying into Mike D’Antoni’s system, and they have to, because a roster with a supposed lack of talent, execution is what will win games. Enjoying one another’s company doesn’t hurt, either.
With this team, every game has the potential for some sort of feel good story. At the beginning of the season, it was Xavier Henry not only earning a roster spot early in training camp, but finding his way into the regular rotation. Steve Blake’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best passing point guards in the absence of Steve Nash has been a joy to watch. Pau Gasol donating $24,000 for typhoon relief for the Philippines was incredible. Jordan Hill seizing every moment he had on the floor in his limited role until he snatched a starting job right out of D’Antoni’s hands as soon as it was within reach. Last night, it was Williams hitting from deep six times while pulling down nine rebounds. No one on this Lakers team had been struggling on the offensive end more than Williams, but even he’s found a way to leave an impression on this short season.
For everything that D’Antoni did wrong last season, he’s been making it up this year. He’s been stubborn on some things (keeping Williams in the rotation), but he’s been willing to adapt for a team that has been willing to play for him. In return, he’s giving guys opportunities to prove the league wrong if they’re willing to work hard on the things that don’t show up in the box scores.
“If you take good shots and you play good basketball and you play great on the defensive end, you run the floor, you run what we try to put a system in, if you make and miss shots it doesn’t matter. Now, it takes all the pressure off. I can still be productive,” D’Antoni told reporters after last night’s game.
He’s been true to his word this season. Even Robert Sacre has been getting meaningful minutes in the last two games.
With the team understanding that minutes could increase or decrease depending on play from a game-to-game basis, it has everyone rooting for the next guy knowing that they’ll get their opportunities in the next one if their game isn’t on for a particular game. This is a close group, nothing but smiles of satiety, gestures of amorous languor in wins. Optimism and positivity after losses.
“You never know what’s going to happen each night,” said Johnson after recording a season high 27 points in Detroit. “Nick was last, the previous night it was, I think, Jordan [Farmar]. It’s like you never know. It’s just us playing off one another. Whoever is hot, we keep feeding him.”
With the imminence of Kobe Bryant’s return looming, the infrastructure will be shaken and reworked, but with the confidence of this team, it shouldn’t be broken.