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Lakers 112, Rockets 110: Opening Night Was Quite All Right

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It's not easy to do your best work when you're emotionally wrought. In most endeavors, sound execution depends on a clear head, steady nerves and just generally having your wits about you. Giddiness and elation can be the enemies of a job well done. As we saw tonight at Staples Center, such are the hazards of having to play a basketball game immediately following a goosebump-worthy ring ceremony.

The evening began in stirring fashion, as the Lakers were awarded their mammoth new championship rings by David Stern and a new banner was unveiled in the arena rafters. It was a cool presentation. Each of the players said some kind words about one of their teammates, and Phil Jackson took a moment to salute the dearly departed Josh Powell, Adam Morrison and D.J. Mbenga. (Even the Laker massage therapist got a ring.) A nicer person than I would observe that it's something fans of every team should get to experience once in their lifetimes. Me, I just want the Lakers to keep repeating it year after year until I'm dead.

It would've been nice to jump straight from the ceremony to the postgame party, but according to league rules the Lakers had to play the Houston Rockets first, and as we kind of suspected would be the case, they didn't quite look like their hearts and minds were in it. A messy and sluggish start found the Rockets ahead by double digits at half. After the break, though, the Lakers shook off the lethargy and went to work, hammering away at Houston's lead until it crumbled in the fourth quarter. This led to a heart-stopping finish in which the lead changed hands four times in the final minute. When the buzzer sounded, the Lakers were left standing to the tune of a 112 to 110 final score. The heroes of the game were, to put it mildly, not who we expected them to be.

The Rockets have a talent-rich backcourt in the form of longtime Laker abuser Aaron Brooks and his newish running mate Kevin Martin, and those two catalyzed a Houston run right out of the gate. In the first quarter, they combined to hit five three-pointers and singlehandedly (or doublehandedly, I guess) outscored the Laker team. Together they put up 27 points in the first period. As you might imagine from those numbers, the Lakers' perimeter defense was not exactly in June form. Ron Artest (uncharacteristically) and Derek Fisher (all too characteristically) were at least a couple steps slow on their closeouts. When the Lakers had the ball, only Pau Gasol (6 for 9 in the quarter) could hit a shot. Fish, Ron and Kobe Bryant were a combined 4 for 17.

In the second period, the Rockets continued their sharp offensive execution. They showed sound floor spacing, moved the ball well and made good use of backdoor cuts. They got some nice contributions from their bench, with guards Ish Smith and Courtney Lee pushing the ball in transition and Chase Budinger scoring nine in the quarter. The Laker offense, meanwhile, continued to wheeze uncomfortably. Lamar Odom was aggressive and scored 10 points in the period, and Kobe Bryant started to get some points at the line, but the Laker outside shooting was a disaster. They missed all five of their three-point shots in the Q, and only 13 second-chance points and nine Houston turnovers kept them in the game.

The Laker comeback began about halfway through the third. The defense finally tightened up, and Kobe began looking for his own shot on isolation sets. He scored nine points in a nine-possession span to cut the lead down to single digits. The turning point came in the final minutes. With about three minutes left in the period, Phil put on the floor an odd lineup of Steve Blake, Shannon Brown, Artest, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff. They failed to score on four straight possessions, but they were locking down the Rockets on D, and with less than a minute to play, Blake had his first big moment in purple and gold. After Barnes rebounded a Brown miss, Blake drained a 26-foot three, and then 30 seconds later did it again. That cut the lead to five at the end of the quarter and brought the Staples crowd back to life. It was a crucial sequence, as the Laker starters had been stuck in neutral and Artest and Gasol were both on the bench with four fouls.

The run kept going in the fourth. On the Rockets' first eight possessions of the period, the Lakers held them to four points, and with 5:30 left, they'd built an eight-point lead behind an astonishing and wholly unexpected scoring burst by Shannon Brown. In a span of 14 possessions, Shannon scored 14 points and forced two Houston turnovers. It looked for a bit as if he'd gutted the Rockets for good, but they weren't quite done. They clawed their way back into the lead thanks to some fine plays by Brooks, Martin and Luis Scola. The Laker gamewinner didn't come until there were 18 seconds left, when a driving Kobe kicked out to Blake for another dramatic three. One last defensive stop later, and the Lakers had themselves an imperfect but nonetheless pretty damn satisfying first win of the season.

Stepping back and looking at the game as a whole, here's how the Lakers pulled it out:

  • They won the turnover battle decisively, with a TO rate of 10% to the Rockets' 18%.
  • They shot pretty well from the free-throw line, making 23 of 28 attempts.
  • Although their rebounding was spotty at times, they did a much better job than the Rockets of converting second looks. The Lakers turned 18 offensive rebounds into 23 second-chance points, whereas Houston turned 15 offensive boards into only 14 second-chance points.
  • The defense became stout in the second half, holding the Rockets to 0.94 points per possession after allowing 1.24 PPP in the first.
  • Toward the end of the game, they caught fire from three-point range. Until Blake hit those two critical threes toward the end of the third period, the Lakers as a team were 2 for 12 from distance. From that point on, they made 7 of 9. All seven of those makes came from Blake and Brown.

We haven't mentioned Yao Ming yet. In his first meaningful game after a 500-plus day absence, he looked decent. He and Gasol had a pretty fierce battle in the post most of the night, which Pau (29 points and 11 boards) ultimately won, but Yao's size was a source of discomfort to the Lakers for the half-game he spent on the court. It's good to see the big man back.

The Lakers are now off until Friday night, when they visit the Phoenix Suns. For now, the title defense is off to a fun, if slightly nerve-wracking, start.











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