On the night the Lakers raised banner #16 and received their championship rings they also scrapped out a hard fought victory over the Houston Rockets, winning 112-110 to kick of the season in style. An emotional night that started with each player introducing the next in the ring presentation ceremony ended with those same players rejoicing in victory and celebrating a win.
But, for most of the night, it didn’t look like the Lakers would get this game. Starting 1-0 just didn’t seem possible. And considering the gravity of the night and the high that the players were on from reveling in last season’s accomplishment, I don’t blame them.
For most of the night, the Lakers just couldn’t keep up with the rejuvenated Rockets. With Yao Ming back in the fold anchoring the paint, noted Laker damager Aaron Brooks zipping his way around the court, and a finally healthy Kevin Martin flashing his high efficiency offensive game, the Lakers looked toast. The Rockets were controlling the paint on defense, pushing the ball down the Lakers’ throat on offense, and nailing jumpers that struck like stakes in the hearts of a silenced Staples Center crowd. Even in the Rockets’ half court sets, the Lakers looked a step slow and mentally out of it as they were repeatedly beat by the brilliant back cuts of Rick Adelman’s Princeton Offense.
But despite the Rockets controlling the game and consistently keeping the Lakers at arms length, the boys in the home gold jerseys hung tight. Whenever Houston looked like they might pull away for good, the Lakers would make a slight push and keep the deficit hovering at 11 points. Mostly on the back of Pau Gasol’s grind it out offensive game (11-23 from the field for 29 points) and Kobe’s playmaking skill (7 assists, 1 turnover), the Lakers showed just enough fight to ensure that the Rockets couldn’t go away and hide and turn the game into the one sided affair that we all witnessed in the matinee match up between the new look Heat and still hungry Celtics. Both Pau and Kobe showed their poise and grit as they battled through nights of inconsistency to still put up the numbers that have made them multiple time all-stars and back to back champions.
But, despite those numbers, they were really the role players tonight. Because even though those guys – the Lakers’ superstars – did their jobs, it was the bench players that really stepped up and performed big. It was the reserves that hit the big shots and turned the deficit into a lead. It was the back ups that generated the energy that would spark the crowd and generate the wave of emotion that the team would ride to victory.
Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, and Shannon Brown truly were the killer B’s from the Lakers bench. Starting in the latter part of the third quarter, these guys started to turn the tide and tilt this game on its head. Whether it was Blake hitting back to back threes, Barnes hitting the glass and filling the lane on the fast break, or Shannon side stepping defenders on his way to hoop and sinking jumpers when hanging around the perimeter, it all just worked for the Lakers 2nd unit. The team may have trailed by 5 to start the 4th quarter, but by the clock showed 7:43 left in the game, the reserves turned that deficit into a 6 point lead by tightening up the defense, forcing turnovers and missed shots, and taking the ball the other way to punish the Rockets for their mistakes. At one point, the three B’s scored 11 out of 15 points for the Lakers to create a lead that the Lakers would carry into the final minutes. I really can’t say enough about these guys. Shannon, especially, showed that he’s indeed ready for this season. He showed a balance and consistency on his jumper that was missing last season and played a much more controlled game than he has at any point during his Laker career. This falls in line with with what he showed in the preseason, but it was really good to see it carry over to the games that really count.
But despite this Herculean effort by the reserves, Houston was not going to quit on this game just because the Lakers showed their championship mettle. The Rox battled every inch of the way and settled down in the closing minutes to really make this contest close. As the two point final margin showed, Houston didn’t fold when the Lakers pushed their lead up to as many as 8 points.
In the last 5 minutes, fueled by the aforementioned back court combo of Brooks and Martin, the Rockets battled back to take a one point lead with 53 seconds left. At that point, Pau Gasol grabbed a loose ball off a fumbled Kobe dribble and buried a 10 foot jumper to put the Lakers up by one. On the next possession, Luis Scola executed a nice scoop to put the his team back up by 1. The very next time down the court, with the Lakers trailing by that single digit, Steve Blake showed why so many fans are high on him as a player that could potentially unseat Derek Fisher as the PG that closes out games. When driving left on a high P&R with Pau, Kobe zipped a pass to Blake and the newcomer calmly nailed a three pointer to put the Lakers up by two. On the ensuing Rockets possession, Blake would once again play hero as he played good defense on the Rocket’s last gasp off an offensive play, contesting Aaron Brooks’ lay in attempt – altering it enough so Odom could come over and get the block that secured the win.
Just a great, great finish to a glorious night for the Lakers. When things looked bleak, this team battled back and claimed a victory that they probably had no business taking. And they take home some jewelry too. The emotional high that we all thought would have peaked 10 minutes before tip off, actually got topped when the clock showed triple zeros. What a night.
A couple of other notes on this game:
*Odom continued his strong play from the preseason in this first regular season game. LO had 14 points and 10 rebounds and made several key plays in a 2nd quarter push that kept this game close. He shot 7-10 from the field and played strong defense for most of the night.
*It’s a good thing that Odom played as well as he did because the players tasked with backing him up did not. Theo Ratliff played 16 minutes and was a -4 on the night. While he played decent defense and was reasonably active on the glass, he was non-existent on offense and didn’t look that comfortable navigating the low block. This is mostly to be expected, but in the preseason, he did show a bit more life on that side of the ball and on evenings where LO (or Pau) is in foul trouble, we will need more. Derrick Caracter also saw his first action of the season and looked a bit overwhelmed. This is also to be expected as the rookie has likely never been in a game environment like the one he saw on Tuesday. But, he did miss a bunny right at the hoop and in his two minutes had 1 foul and put up a -8 for his trouble.
*As bad as the Lakers defense was in the first half, they were equally as impressive in the second 24 minutes. In the final two frames the Lakers got their hands into passing lanes and deflected passes, effectively double teamed Yao, and showed much better awareness on the variety of cuts that the Rockets employ in their half court sets. I was impressed with the turnaround that the Lakers showed because based off their first half results, I didn’t think they had it in them.
*Kobe is not quite himself, but he’s still got that sense of the moment. With the Rockets cutting the lead to 2 points with only 1:45 to play, Kobe drove hard to his right hand, took contact from Shane Battier, and finished a lay up plus the foul. His three point play wouldn’t hold up to Houston’s late run, but that’s beside the point. Kobe again proved that in tight moments he can summon the strength to make the play. When he’s completely healthy and has the rhythm back to his game, he’s going to be the same Kobe that we’ve seen the past three seasons.