Reserves show experience, and Lakers' mind-set will significantly bolster team this season
In a ring ceremony Tuesday night that featured plenty about the Lakers' closeness forged last season, the most revealing part came after the celebration with a unit that looked much different than any on last season's championship squad.
Newly acquired backup point guard Steve Blake talked frequently with Kobe Bryant during the waning moments about a play where Bryant would run a pick-and-roll with Pau Gasol, draw a double team and then find Blake open on the perimeter. The play resulted in the winning shot in the Lakers' 112-110 victory and immediate hugs.
Newly acquired backup small forward Matt Barnes remained relentless on the floor and drew smiles from Bryant after a fourth-quarter rebound that led to a putback.
Guard Shannon Brown played for last season's team, but he already looked like a different player with his 14 fourth-quarter points and three steals prompting Bryant to hug him at midcourt. Brown showed how his off-season work helped further develop his shot.
Though Theo Ratliff played a marginal role, his 17 minutes at least partly relieved Jackson's anxieties, considering both Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom got into foul trouble with five apiece. Seeing the relentlessness in Ratliff, 37, gave a model for Odom to follow, considering he wants to push through as much time on the court this season as possible.
On a night when last season's championship team was honored, it was a newcomer in Blake who delivered the victory and provided the template for the rest of the bench to follow. And the reason why the chemistry worked through training camp points to the same feelings the ring ceremony reinforced among the Lakers.
"We're all pretty close," Blake said. "Even in the short time we've been here. We're all happy for each other when we have success."
Knowing it's an 82-game season and that nothing definitive comes out of one game, Jackson on Wednesday limited the praise for the bench to this: "They bailed us out last night. Shannon and Steve bailed us out last night. But we're going to need more than just those two."
Jackson surely is correct, considering that the Lakers expect Andrew Bynum to continue rehab on his surgically repaired right knee until at least Thanksgiving; Bryant's right knee continues to make progress; Gasol and Odom each picked up five fouls; and Ron Artest and Derek Fisher combined for four-for-22 shooting and sat out the fourth quarter.
Most of the commentary surrounding the Lakers' bench last season, however, pointed to the team's tendency to blow large leads, rather than secure them or even fight from behind. Jackson ticked off the Lakers' four departures in D.J. Mbenga, Josh Powell, Adam Morrison and Jordan Farmar by name during the ring ceremony. But Jackson's proclamation that "we recognize them tonight as part of our team" served as nothing more than a formality.
They largely played minimal roles in the postseason, save for Farmar's clutch performance in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against Phoenix and in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against Boston. They represented a unit known more for blowing leads than securing them, with Farmar's individual tendencies undermining the team, Mbenga's strength proving not enough to excel, Morrison's lack of speed demonstrating why he's continued struggling as a pro and Powell's positive attitude and work ethic failing to translate into consistent offensive and defensive execution. Those players, combined with Brown nursing a sore right thumb and frequent injuries to Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton, hardly inspired confidence in the Lakers.
That's why it's not surprising all four of those players have since left the Lakers. Farmar went to New Jersey for a bigger contract and more playing time. The other three were let go, with Mbenga signing with the New Orleans Hornets, Powell latching on with the Atlanta Hawks and Morrison temporarily joining with the Washington Wizards before they promptly dropped him.
But after training camp and one regular-season game, Bryant already has full trust in the reserves, enough to grant one of them the chance to hit a game-winner.
"I've seen him play for years now and I've seen him hit big shots before," Bryant said of Blake. "He's not scared of the moment. He doesn't shy away from the moment."
And what about how this year's bench sizes up against last season's reserves?
"We were a deep team last year as well, and this year I think we have a little better chemistry in terms of the pieces fitting better together off the bench," Bryant said.
The bench's makeup has more than just superior talent on last season's team. While the bench last season featured young players trying to make names for themselves, the Lakers' free-agent acquisitions are all in their 30s and act as eager as rookies because this has been the closest they've been to tasting a championship. It's resulted in the bench experiencing a quick learning curve and constant self-criticism. It's promoted more team play from Brown and Vujacic, whose zero minutes in the season opener, will likely become a non-issue or at least marginalized because of the bench's maturity. And it's led Fisher, who vehemently wants a starter's role, to concede responsibility and heap praise on Blake, whose fourth-quarter success coincided with Fisher's poor shooting night and defensive performance on Aaron Brooks.
"He's going to go with the guys in the game that are playing well," Fisher said of Jackson's decision to play Blake for the entire fourth quarter, while he sat on the bench. "They have rhythm out there. They're playing good defense. They're making good shots. Those are the guys that are going to stay in the game more times than not. I think as a player you appreciate that and it gives you the confidence that if you go in the game and you're doing some good things, you're going to get some minutes."
The same rarely was said of the Lakers' bench last season. So on a night the Miami Heat featured its star-studded new roster with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and lost to Boston, the Lakers proved why their minor tune-up in upgrading their bench yielded higher results. There may be bumps along the way this season. But more often than not, what happened in the Lakers' season opener will become the norm and not the exception.
"I hope so," Blake said when asked if the bench will prove to be the Lakers' strength. "That's our job: to come in, bring some energy, make plays and not have any let-ups when we come into the game."
-- Mark Medina
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