By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - While Mike D'Antoni is yet to take charge of his first game courtside, the Los Angeles Lakers have turned around their season in explosive fashion in the up-tempo, high-scoring style promised by their new coach.
Since D'Antoni's predecessor Mike Brown was abruptly fired on November 9, the Lakers have triumphed four times in five games, scoring more than 100 points in all four wins to bury memories of their dismal 1-4 start to the campaign.
Even more impressively, they have recorded season-high totals of 114 and 119 in their last two outings which also happened to be the first two games since D'Antoni took over Lakers practice sessions.
Bernie Bickerstaff will forever be able to boast that he guided the Los Angeles franchise to a 4-1 record as their interim coach but the D'Antoni influence has unquestionably energized the players.
"He just lets us go out there and play," five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant told reporters about D'Antoni, who has delayed his courtside return while he recovers from knee replacement surgery.
"It's not like he has to be on top of us and stuff. He comes in before the game and tells us what we need to do, at half-time he comes in and tells us everything we need to adjust and we just go from there.
"We're just picking apart the defense," said Bryant, who recorded the 18th triple-double of his career in the Lakers' 119-108 rout of the Houston Rockets on Sunday.
"We're putting the defense in predicaments where they have to choose and we're making them pay."
One concern Lakers fans may have is the team's defense, which allowed the fast-paced Phoenix Suns to score 64 points in the paint while losing to Los Angeles 114-102 at the Staples Center on Friday.
Bryant, however, does not share those concerns.
"We just need to get a little sharper," the 14-time All-Star said. "Defensively we're doing okay. These last two teams that we played did a good job getting up and down, spacing the floor and making shots."
What has made the dramatic turnaround by the Lakers even more remarkable is that they have achieved it without their point guard Steve Nash and his back-up Steve Blake.
Nash, twice the NBA's Most Valuable Player, has missed the last eight games because of a small fracture in his left leg and is expected to be out for at least the rest of this week. Blake has been sidelined by an abdominal strain.
In their absence, Darius Morris has performed impressively while Bryant has skillfully combined the roles of facilitator and shot-maker but Nash's return in particular could elevate the Lakers to new heights.
Nash, an eight-time All-Star, was point guard for the Phoenix Suns when D'Antoni masterminded them to the Western Conference Finals twice in five seasons and he knows the offense-oriented system of the new Lakers inside-out.
"I'm really lucky to have Steve Nash, who's done this," said D'Antoni. "I know the possibilities that we have. Our expectations are to win a championship. We have the team and players to do that.
"Our offensive philosophy - we just have a rhythm to it. We open the floor up and make things as easy as we can with some great players. You do that, things flow.
"It's our (the coaches') job and Steve's job to get everybody on the same page and understanding that: 'Hey, this is how we're going to win a championship.' There are just so many weapons we got."
D'Antoni, who had knee replacement surgery earlier this month, hopes to take charge of his first Lakers game against the Brooklyn Nets in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
(Editing by Julian Linden)