As many teams do, the Lakers started off sluggishly in their opening game, just after receiving their championship rings from last season. All the excitement and emotion of the ceremony tend to weigh teams down as they struggle to find their focus early on. But as is often the case, the Lakers eventually found their groove, and were able to snag a victory on Tuesday night.
This Lakers team is not whole at the moment, with Andrew Bynum out until at least Thanksgiving, and Kobe Bryant still not 100% after off-season knee surgery. Kobe still managed 27 points and 7 assists despite his lack of explosion, and Pau Gasol Stepped up to the plate with 29 points and 11 rebounds.
But the difference between this year’s team and last, is the depth and experience on the bench. The Lakers best bench player, Lamar Odom, had to slide into the starting lineup in place of Bynum, and he did so admirably in this game, totaling 14 points and 10 rebounds. With Odom currently on the first unit, the other guys on the bench need to step into bigger roles early in the season, and thankfully it appears as if they are ready to do that.
Shannon Brown shot a career high 32.8% from beyond the arc last season, and worked on his jumper relentlessly over the summer. Apparently it worked, as he went 4-5 from downtown en route to 14 fourth quarter points. Brown also had 4 steals as he keyed a Laker comeback while Kobe and Pau sat on the bench.
Free agent signees Matt Barnes and Steve Blake also had a huge impact on the game. Barnes finished with just 6 points and 5 rebounds, but made all of the hustle plays for the Lakers, while Blake went 3-4 from three, including a clutch shot with 18 seconds left to give L.A. the lead for good. The Lakers kept Blake in during the game’s most crucial final moments, as Derek Fisher had been unable to find his jumper. It seems both Blake and Barnes have adapted quickly to their new surroundings, and looked relatively comfortable in the offense. If the “other guys” continue to play at a high level for the Lakers, and the stars can get/stay healthy, this team could be looking at yet another ring ceremony next year.
As for the Rockets, Yao Ming made his return from a 15 month injury hiatus and played 23 of his allotted 24 minutes before fouling out. Yao didn’t show much lateral quickness, but then again, that was never his strength. He did finish with 9 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots, while altering the way the Lakers attacked offensively when he was on the court. Yao may never again be the dominant force of a few years ago, but he can still be a presence inside just by his sheer size.
Rocket guards Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin did most of their damage in the first half, but look to be even more dangerous a duo this year than last, as they become more comfortable with each other. Both are excellent shooters, and both are extremely quick with the basketball. They seem to play well off each other, and the return of Yao should afford them more open jumpers. The Rockets could really surprise some people this year and make a playoff run.