Lakers enter season opener with cautious optimism
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson stayed at home, with flu-like symptoms keeping him in bed.
But he still felt healthy enough and interested enough to catch on tape the Lakers' last two preseason games -- a 120-99 victory in San Diego on Thursday over Golden State followed by a 105-102 overtime win in Ontario on Friday over the same opponent.
He liked that the Lakers had won handily Thursday but argued "they were lucky to win the game" in their preseason finale. Jackson lamented the injuries that kept Lamar Odom (sore left thumb, tight back, beat up nose), Theo Ratliff (swollen left knee) out of the lineup Friday and Luke Walton (aggravated right hamstring) back onto the sidelines after playing only four minutes. But he expressed relief that Odom and Ratliff will likely play in the Lakers' season opener Tuesday night at Staples Center against the Houston Rockets, while indicating that Walton will remain sidelined for an undetermined amount of time. And Jackson continued his daily pressure on Lakers forward Pau Gasol, whom the coaching staff has pressed to prepare for carrying the team considering the uncertain rehabilitation progress regarding Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum on their surgically repaired right knees.
Yet, amid all the injuries and the team's inconsistency that led to a 4-4 preseason record, Jackson believes the team is fully prepared for the rigors that lie ahead in the 2010-2011 season.
"I think they're ready," Jackson said after Sunday's practice at the team's facility in El Segundo. "There's a lot of hard work ahead and I think they know that. I think they've measured and are anticipating that. But that daily or nightly pressure that every team is going to bring is something that really has to draw a lot of energy from them. So we'll see how it starts. "
Though Bryant insisted his right knee is "good," Jackson wouldn't plan on limiting Bryant's minutes early in the season. It's a number Jackson says he still hasn't determined, but estimated would amount to the 30-minute range against Houston in what Jackson envisioned to be a tough matchup between Bryant and Houston forward Shane Battier. Although Bryant's quote below describes the key toward three-peating, the approach speaks to how he wants to get phased back into the lineup after appearing in seven of the eight exhibition games averaging 12.6 points on only 28.2% shooting in 21.6 minutes a contest.
"The whole season is all about ramping up," Bryant said. "You try to get better and come out of the gates playing great. You still want to continue to get better and better and better. That's what it's about. The whole season is just a process."
The process involves more than just Bryant hoping he returns to form. Although Jackson shared a sliver of good news that Bynum could return by Thanksgiving, the immediate reality points to the fact that the team must find a way to fill his absence. Because of Ratliff's current injury, Derrick Caracter's back spasms and inexperience, Jackson has considered playing rookie Devin Ebanks at some power forward to stave the load. But Jackson mostly has locked his eyes on Gasol, whose team-leading 17 points on 46.5% shooting this preseason looks impressive but has left the coaching staff wanting more from him with leading the team and tightening up defensively.
"Defensively he's just measuring himself," Jackson said of Gasol. "He's not pushing himself. Probably rightfully so because we don't have a lot of backup at this point. He's got to be there for the regular season. But when the regular season comes, though, he's going to get tested night in and night out."
So is he still concerned about Gasol?
"Not until I see him play in a regular-season game. Then I'll be concerned," Jackson said with a smile.
Those concerns extend to the Lakers' bench, including newcomers Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Ratliff. Though Bryant anticipates "our second unit will be consistent for us," Jackson still notices a learning curve. There's also the unresolved issue on whether Shannon Brown or Sasha Vujacic will win the starting backup shooting guard spot, a role Jackson seems to envision splitting based on matchups and circumstances surrounding the game.
"We just go out and play hard," Brown said of himself and Vujacic. "There's no secret where there has to be anything said. Both guys want to play. both guys will go out and play hard."
In the end, all these challenges appear nothing other than issues the Lakers have all season to solve. But Artest fears that mind-set can get dangerous, a reason why the team wants to ensure a strong start come Tuesday.
"You look at it as boxing. You make one mistake and you get knocked out," Artest said. "You can't look too far ahead."
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