"I've felt different for about two weeks now, so this feels good," D'Antoni said. "Everybody is kidding you - and, yes, the pressure is there - but you know what? This feels great. I wouldn't change it for the world. I don't know if [the knee] was any better today than yesterday, but it's going to be the same tomorrow, too, so it's good."
Kobe Bryant scored six of his 25 points in the final two minutes while running the show offensively all night for the Lakers, and D'Antoni quickly was reminded how enjoyable coaching the superstar can be. Bryant has played for D'Antoni on various U.S. national teams, and the two Italian-speaking Americans already have a bond.
"It's the same as it's always been," Bryant said. "He's always very calm, but he still has an undertone edge to him. He's the same D'Antoni. . . . We're just getting more in sync with each other."
D'Antoni clearly isn't at full strength just yet: He hobbled slowly on the sideline on the rare occasions he left his chair during play in the first half. But he moved around with more vigor after halftime, protesting foul calls with a good measure of his usual theatrical vehemence.
When asked whether he wanted to jump up more aggressively to protest occasional officiating calls, D'Antoni laughed. "I'm not that stupid," he said. "I'm good. Jumping is in the past. It's gone."
Eight months after leaving the New York Knicks late in his fourth disappointing season, D'Antoni is grateful to be back at work in such a prized position. He would have rested his knee for probably another month if the Lakers hadn't hired him solely on the basis of phone interviews to replace the fired Mike Brown, skipping over Phil Jackson in favor of the offensive mastermind of the Phoenix Suns' wildly entertaining teams of recent years.
Although the timing was bad, D'Antoni couldn't pass up a chance to lead the talented Lakers, who went 4-1 under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff after a 1-4 start. Los Angeles has noticeably improved at both ends of the court even during D'Antoni's brief tenure, playing with a freedom and passion the team hadn't yet captured during a winless preseason and that slow start for Brown.
D'Antoni isn't surprised to see Bryant, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol chewing up opponents. He is only surprised it didn't happen sooner - and he suspects it still might have worked for Brown if he had been given more time.
"With this team, there's no reason not to win every game," D'Antoni said. "That's our goal. It's not, 'Let's get two out of three.' We can win every game we play. . . . I feel like we're the best team in the league. We've got the most talent, so they can do what they want. We've just got to keep perfecting things."
D'Antoni nearly made his debut on the Lakers' sideline two nights earlier against Houston but was persuaded by trainer Gary Vitti to delay it. Vitti was concerned about the 61-year-old's mobility and late-game fatigue. D'Antoni felt much stronger after two more days of rest and room service, and he eagerly got on the court without the aid of the crutches that kept him upright during his first practice last week.