After Coach Phil Jackson received his 11th Championship ring, he recognized former Lakers from last season who were not with the team tonight (Jordan Farmar, DJ Mbenga, Adam Morrison and Josh Powell), and then he spoke a few words on Luke Walton. From there, Walton introduced Lamar Odom, who introduced Ron Artest, who introduced Andrew Bynum…Pau Gasol…Sasha Vujacic…Shannon Brown…Derek Fisher…Kobe Bryant. One by one, each player introduced another, providing heartfelt words about their teammates; and with each introduction, each hug was held longer; the very last and most enduring embrace between captains, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher. After, Bryant introduced Jerry Buss to receive his ring, calling him the “best owner in the history of team sports.”
As Artest counted down, the 16th Championship Banner was unveiled on the Staples Center wall. The now two-time defending champions looked on, and before they handed back their rings (because there was still a game to play, after all), Lamar Odom lingered then saluted towards that wall of banners. It was almost like a greeting and farewell, as if to say, Hello, we’ve been waiting for you and also We’ll meet again around this time next year. It was a unique and personable ceremony, filled with more heart and camaraderie than pride and individual accolades. The newest ring was the most difficult piece of hardware to attain to date, and tonight the Lakers began a new season, another opportunity to add to their jewelry collection.
Of course, it didn’t appear the Lakers were ready to defend their title. Forgetting that the Houston Rockets are the “Little Team That Could,” L.A. allowed the visiting team to rain momentarily on their proverbial parade. Not only were guards, Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin having their way with the Lakers defense (when there was a Lakers defense to have their way with), but Houston simply outplayed the home team in every category in the first half.
The Rockets shot 48% in the first twenty-four minutes while the Lakers, behind by 11 points at the break, were shooting a measly 36% from the field. From downtown, Houston converted on 6-11 attempts while the home team could only manage 2-11 from three-point range.
Kobe Bryant, still trying to build strength in his knees, led the Lakers at the half with 13 points and he also handed out four assists. He went 27 points, seven assists and five rebounds in 37 minutes of burn.
The value of Lamar Odom was again highlighted when, plagued by early foul trouble, he had to sit, watching the Lakers get behind by double-digits so soon in the game. Coming back in the second quarter, however, Odom led a 9-0 run capped by his signature defensive rebound, coast-to-coast, ain’t-no-stoppin’-me-now lay-up. The Lakers got to within three points until a late-half Houston run dug the Lakers into a 62-51 hole.
Phil Jackson was not amused as his team continued to struggle in the third quarter, shouting from the sidelines to “put a body on people” and to “get more stops.” The Lakers got behind by as much as 15 points. Each time they chipped away at the lead, Houston would hit a three or drive in for, sadly, uncontested layups and dunks.
Enter the new-look Lakers back-up backcourt, Steve Blake and Shannon Brown. To end the third quarter, Blake scored on back to back threes to cut a once double-digit lead to five points. After another three-from Brown, a Gasol putback, two Matt Barnes free throws and a fastbreak finger roll from Brown, the Lakers got the lead, 88-86.
With less than six minutes left in the game, Brown hit back to back threes to increase the Lakers’ lead to eight points, 99-91. As per usual, however, Houston made another great comeback and the lead switched back and forth a few more times. With under 30 seconds left, behind by a single point, Bryant drove into the lane and tossed a pass over Gasol’s outstretched arms, into the hands of Blake, who hit another timely three to take a two point lead that would last until the final buzzer sounded – 112-110, Lakers 1-0 for the season.
The game did not start the way the Lakers may have hoped it would, but as Bryant has said before, victories can’t all be beautiful. Tonight’s game certainly wasn’t one of the prettiest, but it was one of the grittiest, with the home team shooting just a little over 41%, but whose defense brought down the hot-shooting Rockets to the same field goal percentage. A win is a win, and tonight, the Lakers got their first of the season. It’s a long way to the finish line.
Pre-game Thoughts: Another Ring Night to open the new season – it should always begin this way.
Half-time Thoughts: 62-51 – Either the Lakers are still distracted from receiving their Championship rings, or they’re still working to get out of training camp mode. Either way, they’re getting outplayed by the Houston Rockets. Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks together have scored 37 of the Rockets’ 62 first-half points. Kobe Bryant leads the Lakers with 13.
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: The Lakers, in the first three quarters of the game, played more mindlessly than out of their minds.
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: Steve Blake and Shannon Brown – before the back-up guards poured in from downtown (7-9), the Lakers were 2-12 from 3-point range. Bryant and Gasol may have collected 27 and 29 points respectively, but it was Blake and Brown who chipped at Houston’s 15-point lead.