AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — This was how unexpected the Lakers’ season became: Nick Young took a game-saving charge. Really.
Known much more for his streaky, high-volume shooting, Young drew a charge on Josh Smith with 1.9 seconds left and the Lakers snared a 106-102 victory Friday over the Detroit Pistons at the Palace.
Young, as jovial of a player as can be found in the NBA, downplayed it afterward.
“I’m the defensive player of the year now,” he said excitedly in the locker room.
He has supporters on a team that simply plays well together, a refreshing change from the vastly overpaid and numbingly underperforming Lakers last season.
“That’s probably the first one of his life, so I’m happy for him,” Jordan Farmar said a few feet from Young, adding a smile.
If anyone saw the Lakers sitting at 9-8 without Kobe Bryant, please stand up.
How happy is the team this season? Three days after signing a two-year, $48.5-million contract extension, Bryant paid to have Thanksgiving dinner catered to Lakers players, coaches and staffers in a Detroit suburb Thursday night.
Try to imagine him sharing anything with Dwight Howard last season.
The Lakers were fully dominated in the paint Friday, outscored, 76-28, with a first-half breakdown that was especially weak: Detroit scored every one of its baskets in the paint, a total of 48 points. The Pistons added seven free throws for a total of 55 points in the half.
But the Lakers stayed alive with timely three-point shooting and completed a rally from their 10-point fourth-quarter deficit when Young did the implausible.
He barely stopped smiling during the referees’ review of the play, which confirmed the original call.
“Aw, man. That felt good to do that for my team,” said Young, who finished with 12 points on three-for-12 shooting. “Anything to win. I was waiting for [Smith] the whole way. I’d seen Wes [Johnson] went for the pump-fake a little bit … and I was just waiting there the whole time”
For once, the player who goes by the nickname “Swaggy P” could just as easily have been called “Swaggy D.”
Actually, Young has been working to improve his defense. Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni recently complimented him on his improvement there.
Young also made two free throws with 1.7 seconds left to provide the final margin. He played with a splint on his left ring finger after Brooklyn forward Paul Pierce whacked him there Wednesday during the Lakers’ 99-94 victory.
Johnson had 27 points, making six of seven from three-point range, and Shawne Williams also had a solid scoring night — 20 points on seven-for-13 shooting.
Detroit’s paint production was mainly on unchecked drives by Rodney Stuckey (22 points) and Brandon Jennings (19 points) or work down low by Greg Monroe (19 points) and Andre Drummond (13 points).
But the Pistons (6-10) made only one of eight three-point attempts (12.5%) while the Lakers were 14 for 31 (45.2%).
The victory made Lakers fans forget about that points-in-the-paint thing. Not to mention four of five misses from the free-throw line in the final six minutes, including two by Farmar that could have put the Lakers up four with 16.1 seconds left.
Hey, there was always Nick Young, defensive stalwart.
“We come up with different things to make sure we give ourselves a chance,” said Pau Gasol, who had 13 points and 12 rebounds. “A great fourth quarter after a shaky game on our part. But really a great way to close it out.”