And with this, the Lakers are back in our lives.
It had been nearly five months since we last saw them in real action, and the crew on the court last night wasn't the same occupying army that rolled through Orlando in last year's Finals. Their play was unruly and unpolished. Their shooting touch will need some time to recalibrate. Two old friends from last year's team were missing - one permanently, the other for one night only. We hope.
But despite all that, the Lakers put on a damn good show. There were rings, a new banner, a moment to honor Tex Winter, and a sprightly looking Andrew Bynum. Best of all, there were the Clippers. Touted far and wide as an improved and possibly playoff-caliber team, they dutifully showed up and did what we can always count on them to do: play badly and lose.
Basketball's back, people. Let's dig in.
That the Lakers weren't the offensive inferno of last June shouldn't be exceptionally surprising or concerning. Absent were two members of the starting lineup that won the title: Trevor Ariza, who made his debut with the Houston Rockets last night, and Pau Gasol, still resting an ouchy hamstring. In their places were the newest Laker, Ron Artest, and usual sixth man Lamar Odom. Customary substitution patterns were knocked askew, while Laker shooters struggled to find the basket.
On the night, the Lakers managed only 1.02 points per possession. (Full tempo-free stats can be found at the end of this post.) By contrast, last year the team averaged 1.15 PPP over the entire season. The key failings last night took the form of an overabundance of turnovers, bad (25 for 37) free-throw shooting and downright barbaric (4 for 23) shooting on three-point attempts. Especially galling was the third quarter, when the Lakers could manage only 17 points on 24 possessions. A stretch in the second quarter, when the reserve unit spent about six minutes getting dominated, was pretty grim too.
As we're accustomed to seeing, though, the collected talents of the Lakers eventually overwhelmed the opponent. Kobe Bryant repeatedly worked over the smaller Clipper guards on the post to finish with 33, Odom hung an unassuming 16-13-5, and Artest more than made up for a bad shooting night with splendid defense and deft Triangular passing. He posted a plus-minus of +14, tied with Marcus Camby for tops on the night.
Perhaps most heartening for Laker fans was the play of Bynum. We spent all preseason hearing how good he looked, but you don't want to invest emotionally until you see what happens when real bullets start flying. Against a tall and skilled Clippers front line, he performed splendidly, to the tune of 26 points, 13 reebs, a block and only one turnover. His vertical mobility doesn't seem all there yet, but laterally he's moving better than ever, and he showed great instincts to get open and make himself available for feeds near the hoop. We couldn't have hoped for a more promising start to his season.
The Laker second unit looked terrible and played only about 10 minutes, but let's not fret overmuch. The problem was that Pau's absence brought Odom forward into the starting lineup, leaving the reserves without the one guy who can reliably create his own shot. When five low-usage role players are on the floor together, the possessions and results are going to be ugly. When Pau returns the rotations will rebalance.
Defensively, the Lakers put in a quality night of work, forcing turnovers on 21% of Clipper possessions. OK, "forcing" is a bit strong... many of those turnovers resulted from standard-issue Clipper incompetence. But the Lakers didn't allow many open looks, kept the Clips off the free-throw line and flashed good, textbook help defense. It didn't hurt that Baron Davis appears to be an utterly spent force: he burned 12 possessions to score only two points and staged a baroque display of crappy shot selection. I'm so, so happy that I don't write for a Clippers blog.
If you'll indulge some mushiness on my part: the coolest moment of the evening fell between the third and fourth quarters, when David Stern brought Tex Winter onto the court to be awarded his championship ring. Tex, the mad scientist behind the Triangle, is recovering from a stroke suffered last April, as a result of which he was laid up for most of the spring and summer. But he was there last night, looking quite good in fact, and it was awesome that he got his moment on the big stage.
This sport really does do the right thing every once in a while.
Summary Game Stats
- Possessions: 97
- Turnover Rate: Lakers - 17%, Clippers - 21%
- FTA/FGA: Lakers - 0.44, Clippers - 0.18
- Free Throw Accuracy: Lakers - 68%, Clippers - 69%
- Effective Field-Goal Percentage: Lakers - 44%, Clippers - 47%
- True Shooting Percentage: Lakers - 49%, Clippers - 49%
- Offensive Rebounding Rate: Lakers - 35%, Clippers - 34%
- Defensive Rebounding Rate: Lakers - 66%, Clippers - 65%
- Points Per Possession: Lakers - 1.02, Clippers - 0.95