LOS ANGELES -- Yes, the Los Angeles Lakers remain 0-for-the preseason, but all defeats are not created equally. With Dwight Howard's long-awaited debut finally in the books, the vision of what this team may look like moving forward became more clear. And final result aside, it's hard not to feel optimistic about the prospects. Here are four takeaways from the game.
1) This Dwight Howard fella makes a difference
Before the game, coach Mike Brown joked how the presence of the Lakers' new superstar center will lead to fewer minutes for rookie Robert Sacre, and that if the Lakers won tonight, the heretofore 0-5 preseason record could be blamed on the second-round draft pick. Brown was clearly being tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time -- with all sincere respect toward Sacre's legitimately solid showing thus far -- Sacre ain't Dwight Howard. And this "Captain Obvious" observation on my part was made abundantly clear in very little time, and in a multitude of ways.
Howard's first possession resulted in a 3-pointer for Kobe Bryant after the Kings' defense collapsed on Howard in the lane and an open Mamba was spotted. On the very next possession, Steve Nash provided the alley, then Howard the oop for an easy two points, along with a preview of many baskets to come this season ... or even a few minutes later, when Pau Gasol ran the 'ol "feed me at the mid-post and I'll lob to Andrew Bynum" play, except with an upgraded center. (If anything, folks got a little too lob-happy with Howard, which resulted in a few wasted, botched possessions, but can you blame guys for wanting to red-line the new car?) A nice lefty jump hook dropped in in the third quarter, and all in all, Howard's offense, the most relatively maligned part of his game, didn't look too rusty for a guy who hasn't played basketball since April. A few dunk jumps were mistimed, but that's just as much the result of learning about his new teammates as his rehabilitated body. The possibilities for points with Howard in the middle were immediately possible and absolutely tantalizing.
In the meantime, he looked every bit the part advertised on the defensive end. A dozen rebounds were snagged, four shots were blocked, and several others altered as the result of his size, athleticism and general intimidation. Simply put, Howard turns the lane upside down for opponents, and while he doesn't cure everything that ails the Lakers (Cough: Transition defense!), he'll make life a lot easier on a regular basis.
2) The starting five will be extremely difficult to defend without fouling
With a little more than six minutes remaining in the first quarter, two Lakers points were added after Bryant sliced and diced his way from the top of the arc to the basket, all the while meeting very little resistance in a sea of defenders who appeared nailed to the floor. Of course, there's not much anybody can do when Bryant has a head of steam and three of the four other Lakers cannot be left alone. And on a night like this one, where Metta World Peace, the likeliest candidate for abandonment, is hitting outside shots at a decent clip, the solutions become even more difficult. Left in single coverage, no Laker among the first five represents a cakewalk assignment.
As a result, you'll likely see a repeat throughout the season of the Kings' approach, which was a lot of reaching and fouling. In the first quarter alone, the starting five had taken 13 trips to the line. By halftime, the number reached 21, and every member had taken at least a pair. Driving the point home even further, Bryant finished the night with 21 points on just 12 shots, the total a result of his taking residence at the line. His address may be officially listed in Newport Beach, but he might as well have his mail delivered to either free throw line at Staples Center, because he'll basically be living there this season.
Whether driving the lane, backing down defenders, or drawing contact on fakes, Bryant, Howard, Nash, Gasol and MWP showcased their ability to attract whistles, and I doubt that will change any time soon.
3) Gasol was much better this evening
Beyond co-leading the team with five assists, Gasol didn't have a performance to write home about, if judging purely by the numbers, an extension of what has been a fairly underwhelming preseason. But as the saying goes, that's why you need to watch the actual games. Gasol was considerably more effective this evening, and in ways that don't often grace the box score. For example, Gasol consistently challenged, bodied and pestered DeMarcus Cousins into misses. He also drew fouls against Cousins on each end of the floor, and was the primary reason Cousins entered the locker room at halftime with four personals.
Maybe it was the excitement of finally playing alongside his All-Star frontcourt mate, or maybe he just realized the time had come to ignore the fatigue Brown has cited on several occasions throughout October. But for the first time since arguably the first preseason game, Gasol looked energized from the opening tip through the final horn. A few moments of indecisiveness notwithstanding, I was pleased by his level of engagement.
4) Antawn Jamison is still seeking his shot
And based on his body language after two attempts at the rim didn't draw whistles upon contact, perhaps he's growing a bit frustrated by the inability to unite ball and basket. Jamison is far too accomplished a scorer for panic to set in, but with him failing to fill it up, the bench remains below expectation after an offseason overhaul. Of course, that effect is also magnified by the absence of Jordan Hill, who figures to be an integral part of that second unit, but Jamison is undoubtedly the key cog. The bench often will live and die with his production.