Storylines abounded as the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets tipped off on Tuesday night. How would L.A. fare in Game 1 of the Mike D'Antoni Era? Would there be blood between Dwight Howard and Deron Williams, or would the ushers at the Staples Center keep Daniel Plainview out of...errr, plain view? Would Nets minority owners Jay-Z and Kanye West surprise the energetic crowd with an impromptu halftime show?
But, really, the only one that mattered in the Lakers' 95-90 win—the only one that will truly matter as the 2012-13 NBA season unfolds for this team—is the same one that's dominated the purple-and-gold narrative for years now.
What about Kobe Bryant?
He's the one who gave the Lakers his blessing to hire D'Antoni in the first place. He's the one enjoying the most efficient (if not the best) year of his Hall of Fame career. He's the one for whose benefit (among others) the Lakers constructed this whole win-now-or-else edifice.
As such, D'Antoni would be wise to rely on Bryant as the new coach continues his recovery from knee replacement surgery.
So far, so good...for the most part.
Kobe had himself another increasingly-more-characteristically-efficient evening with D'Antoni, his childhood idol, spying from the sidelines. He racked up 25 points on just 15 shots (including 8-of-10 from the free-throw line) with five assists and four rebounds.
Statistics aside, Bryant played the part of floor general to a tee. Whether he was yelling at Pau Gasol for rolling the wrong way off a screen or barking at Howard to settle down at the stripe (where he missed 12-of-19), Kobe was clearly coaching on the floor when he wasn't busy taking care of business himself.
And, as it happens, Bryant didn't leave his leadership duties on the court (per Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register):
Kobe diagramming on the clipboard for Mike D'Antoni at the start of this Lakers timeout. ... BRK 86, LA 86 with 2:37 left.
— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) November 21, 2012
Of course, it's nothing new for Kobe to be active and engaged in this way. He's always had a mind for the game and, once upon a year ago, seemed to enjoy the fact that the recently dispatched Mike Brown was a basketball junkie like himself.
What was new (to some extent), though, was seeing Bryant so openly disobey his coach's "orders," as he did against the Nets. Kobe picked up his second foul with 6:07 left in the first quarter and sent back D'Antoni's subsequent call to the bench. D'Antoni seemed to cop to his "mistake," telling Ding after the game:
D'Antoni on Kobe refusing to be subbed out with two early fouls: "I've got to learn how to trust them, because I don't know them."— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) November 21, 2012
But Kobe does, and it's Kobe's understanding that matters most. As important as Pau and Steve Nash may be to the Lakers' present, and Howard to their future, this will still be Kobe's show to run until he calls it quits.
In turn, it's Bryant's buy-in that matters most. For all the talk about Kobe's familiarity with and admiration for D'Antoni, it'll still take the player and coach some time to figure each other out. The same applies to D'Antoni and the rest of L.A.'s roster, though Bryant (naturally) comes first.
Because Kobe is the one best-equipped to deliver knuckleheads like Dwight and Metta World Peace into D'Antoni's arms. For all intents and purposes, Bryant is the Lakers: As he goes, so do they. He leads, they follow, sometimes begrudgingly so.
Granted, even Kobe's pending approval is no guarantee that this new coaching arrangement will work out. Bryant seemed to have Brown's back, and look how much good that did him.
In any case, this is Kobe's world and (for now, at least) D'Antoni is simply along for the ride. That much was evident down the stretch, when Bryant took it upon himself to play "Hero Ball"—scoring L.A.'s last eight points of the game—as he's been known to do in the past.
D'Antoni will have his chance to call the shots once he's no longer reliant on name tags (and Vicodin) to survive a full practice. In the meantime, he's fortunate to have a commanding veteran like Bryant on whom to lean. He'll take plenty of cues from the holdovers from Brown's staff, most notably Bernie Bickerstaff and Chuck Person.
But when it comes to concocting a narrative for the remainder of the Lakers' already tumultuous season, D'Antoni will have but one person to whom he can, should and will turn to deliver the Lakers' most important plot points.
And that person has a habit for chewing on his own jersey. Godspeed, Mike D.
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