LOS ANGELES (AP) – If Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers’ legion of fans get their wish, Bernie Bickerstaff’s stint as a lame-duck interim head coach will end undefeated.
Howard had 23 points and 18 rebounds, Bryant scored 20, and the in-transition Lakers continued warming up for a possible return to the bench by Phil Jackson with a 103-89 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night.
Bickerstaff called the shots for the second straight game following the firing of Mike Brown on Friday with the team off to a 1-4 start — their worst in 19 years. They throttled Golden State 101-77 at Staples Center several hours after the change.
“Basically what we talked about this morning was the profound appreciation of their professionalism and how they have handled things,” Bickerstaff said. “I’ve been around a lot of teams, and this is the consummate professional group. No one’s naive. They’ve been around a long time and we’ve been around a long time, so they understand.”
Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak remain in negotiations with Jackson, whom they are trying to coax out of retirement for what would be his third coaching stint with the organization.
The 67-year-old Hall of Famer guided the club to five NBA titles and won six others with the Chicago Bulls. He walked away after the Lakers were swept by Dallas in the second round of the 2011 playoffs — denying the Zen Master his fourth three-peat.
“I’d be excited to have him out there,” Bryant said. “I’m sure something will happen sooner than later. I mean, this organization moves pretty quickly once they have a direction on where they want to go and they always makes the right decision. For us players, we just go out there and do our jobs. It isn’t anything that’s been a distraction for us, but it’s just been a long week for everybody.”
This is the first time the Lakers changed head coaches during a season since 2004-05, when Rudy Tomjanovich left midway through the first year of a five-year contract due to health issues and was replaced by Frank Hamblen. It’s the third time Bickerstaff has taken over the reins of an NBA team after a season was underway, including 1994-95 with Denver (20-12) and 1996-97 with Washington (22-13).
The Lakers have now changed head coaches on the fly in six of their 53 years in Los Angeles. On two of those occasions, they went on to win an NBA title. In 1979-80, Paul Westhead relieved Jack McKinney with the team off to a 10-4 start after McKinney was hospitalized due to a serious bicycle accident. Westhead was fired in 1981-82 with a 7-4 record, shortly after Magic Johnson publicly criticized him, and Pat Riley guided the team to the first of four championships under his watch.
“My job is to coach the team until they ring the bell,” Bickerstaff said. “But listen. What’s the reality here? I mean, we all know what’s going on and I understand that. But I consented to do this for the organization, and I’m not worried about the big picture.”
The Kings were forced to play short-handed with center DeMarcus Cousins and backup forward Thomas Robinson serving suspensions without pay. Forward Jason Thompson, shifting to center in place of Cousins, had 15 points and 10 assists for Sacramento before fouling out with 9:46 left. Jimmer Fredette scored a team-high 18, most coming after the outcome was long decided.
“It’s unfortunate for our team right now to have those missing pieces, because there were a lot of good things we had been doing,” coach Keith Smart said. “Tonight we did a lot of good things, even with our depleted team. We still had chances to maintain, but obviously we were playing against an elite group of players tonight.”
Cousins began his two-game ban for confronting a Spurs TV analyst in a hostile manner following a 97-86 home loss to San Antonio on Friday night. Robinson completed his two-game absence, following his vicious elbow to the throat of Detroit’s Jonas Jerebko during Sacramento’s 105-103 home win last Wednesday. Cousins loses about $70,500 in salary and Robinson more than $82,000.
“It was tough,” said forward Travis Outlaw, who made his first start of the season and had 11 points in 26 minutes. “I think the most we could have done was to try to get out and run at them a little bit more. But overall, everyone did leave it out there on the court.”
The Lakers built a 72-57 lead with an 11-0 run, capped by Bryant’s two free throws with 4:26 left in the third quarter. They extended the margin to as many as 22 with 4:23 remaining on a pair of 3-pointers 40 seconds apart by Metta World Peace. He and Paul Gasol each finished with 18 points.
“We were really just going out there and playing pickup basketball, to be honest,” Bryant said. “We were out there freelancing, and that forces you to communicate with each other. But we have some form of structure and a little bit of an idea of what we want to do out there.”
Howard had 14 points and 10 boards in the first half, including a short hook shot off an offensive rebound in the final seconds of the second quarter to give the Lakers a 57-48 lead at intermission.
“He’ll have games like this. I mean, this is what he does,” Bryant said of Howard. “I was pretty upset at him, though, because he kind of let a couple of rebounds go at the start of the game. I had an opportunity to get them, but I thought he was. And I told him: ‘Those are yours. That’s what you do. You don’t want to have a game where you finish 18 or 19 rebounds and it could have been 20.’ It should have been a 23-20 night for him.”
Steve Blake, starting at point guard for the fifth straight game because of Steve Nash’s knee injury, was limited to 12 minutes in the half because of an abdominal strain that kept him off the court for almost 10½ minutes.
NOTES: Bryant was at the free throw line at the midway mark of the second quarter when the sellout crowd began chanting “We Want Phil!” They must have been misguided. Jackson was a 73.6-percent free throw shooter during his 12 seasons as an NBA player, and Bryant was 83.8 percent lifetime coming in … Smart got a technical foul early in the second quarter for complaining about a non-call against Antawn Jamison, who made a clean block on a layup by Marcus Thornton and sent him crashing to the floor … Lakers F Devin Ebanks, who posted $5,000 bail following his arrest early Friday morning on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, was scratched for the second straight game. He is due back in court on Dec. 7 … The Kings are 0-4 on the road, matching their worst start away from Arco Arena since 2007-08, when they dropped their first nine to tie a franchise record.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.)