While Los Angeles Lakers fans might get their first chance to see new coach Mike D'Antoni on Tuesday night, the Brooklyn Nets will get their first look at a player who almost ended up on their team.
Dwight Howard will try to lead the suddenly high-powered Lakers to a season-high third straight victory while denying the surging Nets their longest win streak in seven seasons.
D'Antoni was expected to appear on the Lakers' bench for the first time Sunday against Houston, but his wife and team trainer Gary Vitti convinced him to wait a few more days to continue recovering from knee replacement surgery.
"Knee replacement is serious stuff," Kobe Bryant said. "We just want him to take his time."
D'Antoni has watched the past two games from the locker room while getting therapy on his knee, and has talked to the team before games and at halftime. Interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff, who will remain an assistant on the new staff, has guided Los Angeles to a 4-1 mark since Mike Brown's firing earlier this month.
The Lakers (5-5) have started to find their stride with D'Antoni's fast-paced style, averaging 116.5 points in their back-to-back wins even while point guard Steve Nash remains out with a small fracture in his leg. The two-time MVP, who ran his new coach's offense while the two were together in Phoenix, is not expected to return until this weekend at the earliest.
The Lakers posted their highest point total of the season in Sunday's 119-108 win against the Rockets, shooting a season-best 54.1 percent and topping 60 points in the first half for the second straight contest.
"The coaching staff is communicating extremely well in terms of things that they want to see us execute," Bryant said. "We're doing a good job reading the defense and moving the ball around. We're shooting pretty well. ... (D'Antoni) just lets us go out there and play."
Howard led the way Sunday with 28 points win after averaging 15.0 over his previous four games, but his next opponent might be highly motivated to keep him in check.
The Nets (6-2) made a major push to acquire the center this summer, but after those talks with Orlando broke down, Brooklyn acquired Joe Johnson from Atlanta and re-signed Brook Lopez and Deron Williams.
Those moves have paid immediate dividends, with the Nets off to their best start since 2002-03. That season ended with the second of back-to-back NBA finals appearances.
The Lakers, who swept the Nets in the 2002 finals, have won eight straight in the series. Brooklyn, though, might have a good chance to end that skid while securing its first six-game win streak since a franchise record-tying 14-game run March 12-April 6, 2006.
The move from New Jersey has seemed to invigorate the long-struggling Nets, who opened a three-game West Coast trip with a 99-90 victory over Sacramento on Sunday. Andray Blatche led the way with a season-high 22 points off the bench on 11-of-12 shooting.
"I'm at a loss for words right now. It's a good feeling to be on a team that has a good chance of winning every game," said Blatche, who spent his previous seven seasons with another long-suffering team, Washington.
Brooklyn won even though Williams and Johnson were a combined 5 of 22 from the field.
"It doesn't have to be Deron and me having a great game for us to win," Johnson said. "We can come at you offensively in a lot of different ways. I'm not worried about (my shot) at this point, it will come."
Howard has shot 67.1 percent in his last seven games against the Nets, averaging 20.0 points. Lopez, a California native, has averaged 26.0 points over his last four meetings with the Lakers, his best mark against any opponent over the past four seasons.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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