One of the more pleasant surprises for the Lakers during training camp and through three regular-season games has been the play of Xavier Henry. His ability to get to the rim has been evident with his 23 free-throw attempts, a team-high.
Early in the second quarter of Friday’s game against San Antonio, Henry drove right past forward Kawhi Leonard, went airborne for a layup, drew contact and came down only to be greeted with a knee from Wesley Johnson.
Post practice on Saturday, Henry maintained he would be fine, and there is no concussion despite lingering headaches. He needed nine stitches to patch up the two-inch gash, but stayed in the game to hit two free throws before exiting with the Lakers ahead 33-18.
“We were just out there playing hard and we were hustling,” Henry said. “We made a lot of plays off hustle plays. They were missing shots and we were playing tough defense. I think that’s what got us out in front early in the game.”
During the first 15-plus minutes of the contest, the Lakers had held San Antonio to just 25 percent field goals. After Henry went down, the Spurs were 9 for 16 the remaining eight-and-a-half minutes of the second quarter to cut the lead to just one by halftime. San Antonio then used a strong second half – particularly their late-game execution – to come away with a 91-85 win.
“It seemed for whatever reason when (Henry) went down, it took the air out of our sails,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I don’t know if that’s because (he) went down, or the stoppage. They just tightened up. Last night, I thought we kicked one away. We had good stuff going and we let it get away. Give San Antonio credit, but that’s on our plate.”
D’Antoni stated he was pleased with the team’s defensive play for much of the game and the ball movement. From an individual standpoint, one of the bright spots over the last two games has been the play of Wesley Johnson. D’Antoni has used Johnson almost exclusively at the four spot off the bench and has recorded back-to-back games of double-digit points.
“He was more energetic,” D’Antoni said of Johnson’s play against San Antonio. “We’re really trying to stress with him to be relentless in everything he does. If we’re going to play small, he’s going to have to be a force to the basket, either picking and rolling, running the floor, driving or getting to the basket, so he can create layups, fouls and threes. He can do that, he has that possibility and I think he’ll grow into it.”
Particularly in the fourth quarter of the last two games, Johnson has shown more of a comfort level with his jump shot. He’s converted on 7 of 12 field goals overall, including 5 of 7 on three-pointers. D’Antoni allowed he’s looked more comfortable in the system after missing three preseason games because of a foot injury. Outside of Johnson, Jodie Meeks is another player who has impressed through three games with averages of 13.7 points and 4.0 rebounds on 52.0 percent field goals.
“Jodie Meeks is playing great on both sides of the floor,” D’Antoni said. “He’s getting better going to the basket. He’s doing a lot more things than last year, but I thought last year he was good, too.”
Because of the strong play from numerous players, plus the increased depth, divvying up playing time is something the coaching staff is still trying to figure out. In two of the three games, D’Antoni has used an 11-man rotation, and 10 players are averaging at least 15 minutes per game.
“We don’t want grasp at straws, but we’ll definitely evaluate it,” D’Antoni said of possible lineup changes. “It could happen, but we’ll see. We’ll try to do it methodically and the right way, and understand people’s psyche. There’s a lot of things we’ll consider, and we’ll consider that every night.”
The schedule to work out the kinks on the fly won’t let up, though, as the Lakers begin a four-game stretch in six days, starting with Atlanta at home on Sunday evening, then a three-game road trip at Dallas, at Houston and at New Orleans. The main focus, the players say, is on themselves to get better and improve collectively.
“We have a really good team, and we have a lot of new guys, so we’re still figuring each other out,” Henry said. “But more so, we’re making sure we have everything we have down pat, so teams have a harder time scouting us.”