I don't know exactly how much it cost for people to get into the building tonight (something north of "a lot," I'm guessing) for Tuesday night's opener against Houston, but anyone with a golden ticket into Staples Center cannot possibly complain about a lack of entertainment. It kicked off with a unique ring ceremony, in which each player introduced a teammate to award that guy's hardware. Worth the price of admission right there. The game, though, was spectacular. Down 11 at halftime and five heading into the fourth, the Lakers prevailed in a wild fourth quarter.
Kobe Bryant recovered from a slow start to finish with 27 points, five rebounds, and seven assists. Pau Gasol led the Lakers with 29 points, kicking in 11 boards and a pair of blocks. They were good. But they weren't the only highlights.
Thanks, new guys! With just over three minutes left in the third, the Lakers found themselves in a bit of a pickle. Lamar Odom and Gasol were both on the bench with four fouls, and Ron Artest was soon to join them. They hadn't scored for nearly four minutes until Steve Blake hit two clutch 3s at the end of the quarter keep the Lakers in it. In the fourth, Matt Barnes energized the crowd with some aggressive play, penetrating and breaking down Houston's defense, opening up the floor for a Gasol putback. With 9:30 to play, Barnes snagged an Odom miss, then his own after an errant putback. Eventually he worked his way to the line, hitting the free throws that tied the game at 86. Oh, and there was the matter of that game-winner from Blake with 18.8 seconds left, as Bryant penetrated and found the newbie wide open on the right wing. Whether he was actually attempting to pass to Blake or Gasol is an open question, but either way... splash. Then he stuck with Aaron Brooks -- he's fast! -- on Houston's final play, disrupting the shot and sealing the win. They say first impressions are the most important, right? We spent most of last season and into this offseason pumping the virtues of bringing Blake to Los Angeles. Way to make us look smart, Steve!
Turnovers: By the end of the third quarter, the Lakers had started turning the tide on a less-than-stellar performance on the defensive end. The Rockets finished the first half shooting 48 percent, including a blistering 6-of-11 from downtown. Sixty-two points allowed in the first 24 minutes of the game likely means a few "teachable moments" come film study tomorrow. But the Lakers were able to keep themselves within spitting distance in large part because they didn't give the ball away. Only five turnovers in the first half, only eight through three quarters. Eventually, they were able to at least momentarily tighten the screws on Houston's attack (the Rockets shot only 31.3 percent in the third), but it may not have mattered if the Lakers were more reckless with the ball early.
Shannon Brown: At halftime, he had a modest two points. That's it. To put it mildly, things improved after the break. He started the fourth quarter with a critical triple, cutting Houston's lead to four. Two minutes later, Brown grabbed a defensive rebound, went the length of the court, and finished with the right hand off the glass. On L.A.'s next trip, Brown set up on the right wing, took a baseline pass from Blake and with the shot clock expiring, drilled another 3, this time right in front of Courtney Lee. He hit consecutive 3s at 5:51 and 5:30 marks, pushing a two-point Lakers lead to nine. All told, Brown finished with 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting, including four of five from beyond the arc. No mystery why Phil Jackson stuck with him for the duration of the final quarter, as Brown built on a great preseason in the team's first real game.
Ron Artest: As he was in the preseason, Artest was red-hot at the start of the game, hitting his first shot of the season, a 3 from the wing. From there, it's fair to say he may have become inappropriately emboldened by so much early success. He'd finish making only three of 15 attempts. While there were other things to like about his stat line -- four steals, seven rebounds, a couple of nice passes inside the offense leading to buckets -- overall I think Artest's "Just because I can, does it mean I should?" meter was a little out of whack.
First-half defense: I mentioned the near-50 percent shooting from Houston in the first 24 minutes, right? Sometimes that'll happen, but in this case the Lakers too often lost track of their assignments, allowing too many backdoor cuts, and playing a step or two slow on pick-and-rolls. They were also a little foul-happy, picking up seven personals in the first quarter and putting themselves at a serious disadvantage. Lamar Odom, spectacular in so many ways Tuesday night, was a major offender, putting himself on the bench quickly with two early fouls, then again later when he picked up his fourth. Without Andrew Bynum in the lineup, the Lakers have to avoid foul trouble among their bigs.
Derrick Caracter: I don't mean to pick on the kid, but my guess is he didn't picture his NBA debut going quite like this. Pressed into action thanks to the aforementioned foul trouble for Odom, Caracter was understandably jacked up. Less than a minute into his first real burn as a pro, Caracter was whistled for a foul. Faced with his first opportunity to shoot, he had to hoist over Yao Ming. I doubt he saw many 7-foot-6 dudes at either Louisville or UTEP. Hard to practice for this sort of thing. He was also used on a ball fake by Luis Scola on the defensive end. All told, he was a minus-8 in barely two minutes of play. In the second half, with a similar opportunity to give Caracter run in replacement of foul-laden teammates, Jackson declined. There will be many, many moments for the rookie this year and through his career. Unfortunately, this wasn't one of them.