Five things to take away from Lakers' 112-110 victory over the Houston Rockets
1. The personalized ring ceremony was a nice touch. To the tune of Jay-Z's "Run This Town," the new Staples Center HD scoreboard flashed images of the Lakers' playoff run -- Ron Artest's key three-pointer in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, Derek Fisher's coast-to-coast layup in Game 3, plus numerous Kobe Bryant shots that only he knows how to make. Each player introduced a teammate before expressing his appreciation. The teamwork theme was fitting, and with nearly 19,000 fans on hand, it was clear the Lakers run Los Angeles.
The wave of nostalgia hit when the Lakers unveiled their 16th championship banner just above the 310 section of Staples Center. The Lakers are two titles away from forcing the Kings to move their banners and four away from pushing out the Sparks' banner. The highlight reel and testimonials brought on the emotions. The championship rings, each adorned with a piece of leather from the ball used in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, conjured up memories as well. They featured two trophies to signify the back-to-back victories and were made of 16-karat gold and 16 oversized brilliant white diamonds. Each player was featured with a three-dimensional sculpture of his face. The rings were hand delivered in custom boxes; included was a rotating platform to display the ring.
The atmosphere was theatrical, but the player introductions were a really nice, comforting touch.
Kobe Bryant called Lakers owner Jerry Buss "the greatest owner in the history of team sports." Derek Fisher said Bryant, his teammate since their rookie season in 1996, "the world's best basketball player." And Lamar Odom shared stories about growing up with Ron Artest in New York.
Most memorably, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson proudly displayed his ring before proclaiming, "This is what we play for."
I get glimpses of the Lakers as everyday people because I attend their practices, but it was cool for the general public to see some of the emotions and interests of these players, who have such high-profile lifestyles.
2. Steve Blake earns Kobe Bryant's trust. Normally, Bryant wants the ball in his hands for a game-winning shot, but Bryant willingly passes up that opportunity so long as he trusts his teammate. For Bryant to connect with Blake for the game winner in the first game of the regular season shows that Blake has forged a bond with the Black Mamba and is becoming acclimated to the Lakers pretty quickly.
Once Bryant drove along the far side, he drew a double team off a pick-and-roll with Pau Gasol and immediately kicked the ball out to Blake. Aaron Brooks had left Blake open and he nailed the three-pointer for a 112-110 lead with 18.8 seconds remaining. On the other end, Luis Scola attempted a few spin moves and then swung right for a hook, but the shot hit off the rim. Still, officials ruled that the ball went out of bounds on Lamar Odom. On the inbounds pass, Shane Battier found Aaron Brooks on a backdoor cut, but Blake shut off the lane and Odom swatted the shot as time expired.
Blake's 10-point performance on three-of-five shooting and a three-of-four mark from three-point range are a big contrast with his shooting in the preseason, when he went 38.8% from the field and 25% from three-point range. I wasn't too worried about Blake's poor shooting during the preseason because he was largely brought in because of his passing abilities. But the Lakers shot poorly from the outside last season, so any perimeter threat will bolster an already dangerous team. It's also telling that Blake played the entire fourth quarter in place of Fisher, who routinely got beat by Brooks' drives to the basket as he finished with 24 points on seven-of-16 shooting. Fortunately for the Lakers, Blake stopped Brooks on the last drive that counted.
3. Shannon Brown's off-season work has benefited his shooting stroke. Brown spent countless hours this offseason perfecting his shot so as to become more than just an athletic dunker. He showcased that in the preseason, averaging 12.3 points on 49.3% shooting, but it's hard to predict what will carry over into the regular season. It's only one game, but it appears Brown is rounding nicely into form. His 16 points on six-of-nine shooting came on timely plays that helped the Lakers get back into the game. That included a coast-to-coast layup, three three-pointers and a timely steal on Yao Ming.
4. Bryant makes progress on his right knee. Jackson had said he would play Bryant in a limited capacity to start off the season, but Bryant told Jackson he felt well enough and played 37 minutes. His stat line of 29 points on 11-of-23 shooting certainly is more impressive than the 28.2% shooting he averaged this preseason. But the minutes stand out more. Bryant's shot was a mixed bag, with some showing proper lift and others lacking it entirely. But Bryant didn't appear tired. More importantly, his presence caused matchup problems, as he constantly drew double teams in the post, including the final sequence that led to Blake's game winner.
5. The Lakers defense needs work. I thought the ring ceremony contributed to the sluggish start, but it wouldn't have been an issue if the Lakers sharpened up on defense.
Poor shot selection led to a 38.9% first-half shooting percentage, leading to the Rockets speeding back in transition. Brooks (24), while Yao (26) and Luis Scola (18) exploited the driving lanes because of poor interior defense. And Kevin Martin (24) lit it up from outside because of shoddy perimeter play. This was an ongoing issue during training camp. And though the Lakers sharpened up in the second half, opponents likely will view this as the team's primary weakness and try to expose it.
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