If the upcoming Los Angeles Lakers season was a fairy tale (and there's a very decent chance that it will be), this is exactly the way you'd want it to start. Last night's 112-110 victory over the Houston Rockets had everything you could want in an opening chapter. It started with a ring ceremony so touching, Cheryl Miller had trouble with her first sideline report because she was choked up. It continued with the expected sloppiness from a home side still dealing with the emotions of winning another championship. And it finalized with an inevitable run, and the necessary drama to hook you in for another 82-game season.
You'd rather the Lakers provide a dominant performance from start to finish? No thanks, I'm glad to know that the Lakers still have that calm about them, still know that there's no need to panic despite a double-digit deficit staring them in the face. I don't want this every night, but I'm glad to have an early reminder. It's not like that came in handy last season....
You wanted Kobe Bryant to be unstoppable? Meh, I'm more than happy with a relatively quiet 27-point night. Kobe may have only shot 40% from the floor, but he got to the line plenty despite his knee not being 100%, only needing 26 possessions (including FTs) to score his 27 points. Even more important, as the Lakers were shaving down that big Houston lead, Kobe let the comeback happen instead of making the comeback happen. Kobe only had three 4th quarter shots, and passed away from what would have been typical Mamba shots, and his seven assists were indicative of exactly the type of ball movement that could have saved the Lakers from their offensive struggles of a season ago.
You wanted the starters to appear locked in? I'm much happier that it was the bench who was the key to this victory. On a night in which the newcomers might have felt a little left out as their teammates received a phat (and fat) piece of jewelry, the performances of Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Theo Ratliff (along with a huge assist from holdover Laker Shannon Brown) must have had them feeling right at home by game's end. The bench played so well, in fact, that Phil Jackson left their two leaders, Brown and Blake, in until the end, and PJ was immediately rewarded for his faith.
You wished that Derek Fisher wouldn't be terrible in the regular season? Without it, we might never have known that, in his first game as a Laker, Steve Blake already has the complete trust of both Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant. PJ may have left Blake in the game for the entire 4th quarter, but it's Kobe Bryant who already believes in Blake so much that he was willing to hit Blake for the game winning three-pointer (and those of you who think that pass might have been for Pau Gasol, consider this: it's true Pau inhabited the same airspace as the pass, but that pass was half a foot behind Pau as he cut through the lane, and inch perfect for Steve Blake. Do you really think it was a serendipitous accident?)
You wanted Ron Artest to play under control and within the context of the offense? Yeah, OK, that would have been nice. It would also have been cool if a restraining order was taken out on Justin Bieber, so that he couldn't come within 300 feet of a Lakers championship ring, but even the best diamond will have a few minor flaws.
On paper, this game could have been a lot better. The Lakers' defense in the 1st half left a lot to be desired, allowing the Rockets to score at an obscene 1.24 points per possession clip. By the end of the game, it had fallen to 1.09 PPP, which is an improvement, but hardly a good number. The Lakers shot poorly (41.7%) though they recovered quite nicely from three-point range, shaking off a terrible start, Ron Artest induced, to finish 9 for 21. They got pounded on the offensive glass, and even with Andrew Bynum out, no team giving most of their inside minutes to Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom should let that happen. They allowed the Rockets to shoot well from behind the arc, and Aaron Brooks continued to torch Fisher at every opportunity, exposing a weakness that no one was the least bit surprised to see. The Rockets played harder, they played quicker, and they often played smarter. But, in crunch time, they could not play with more resolve.
Besides, in reality, nobody on this team gives a damn about "on paper," and neither should we. What we should care about is that the Laker starters played a pretty poor game, and it didn't cost them a victory. Pau Gasol was aggressive (very nice!), but that aggression did not show itself in Pau's normal efficiency, as he missed more than half his shots. Bryant played pretty well but was tied for team low honors with a -8 on the night (insert raw single game +/- disclaimer). Fisher and Artest were both offensive liabilities, though Artest made up for it with four steals, and Fisher made up for it by using his intangible telepathic powers to convince PJ to let it ride with Blake in the 4th quarter. Even Lamar Odom, who was in beast mode, couldn't stay on the floor because he kept on picking up fouls, most of which were unnecessary.
Last season, a poor game from the starters was an automatic L. Now, the league is faced with a brand new reality, that the Lakers' 2nd unit is also quite capable of turning a game around (in a positive way). It is perhaps fitting that the only starter to truly play well will eventually join that bench. Just think about the prospect of Blake, Brown, and Barnes running the court with Odom and either Gasol or Bynum. Don't worry about that salivation, it's completely natural. Kobe Bryant seems to have given it plenty of thought, and you could see his giddiness and excitement as the bench began cutting into the big Rockets lead.
Yes, the night began with a touching ring ceremony. Each member of the last year's Laker squad introduced one of his teammates, showing the bond and team unity which developed over the course of the past few seasons. But there were five current Lakers who received no special introduction, no gem-filled piece of precious metal. You could understand if they felt a little awkward, a little left out. By night's end, that awkwardness was replaced by smiles of excitement, as they began dreaming of their own special moment, roughly 365 days from today.
But the biggest smile of the night was not reserved for Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, or even Shannon Brown. The biggest smile belonged to Kobe Bryant, a vast display of pearly whites that communicated the overwhelming message of a perfect night, loud and clear. That message?
Welcome to L.A., boys. Stay as long as you like.