LOS ANGELES -- A telltale moment of the preseason came when I poked my head into the Laker coaches office at Staples Center to get a glimpse of the now-infamous Mike Brown ironing board. There was the board, fully extended in all of its light-blue glory, a tie draped across it. Brown picked up the iron, looked at the brand name and said, proudly, “Steam Master.”
And there’s the transition between Phil Jackson and Mike Brown neatly summed up. From Zen Master to Steam Master.
The biggest difference between the two is that Jackson arrived in Los Angeles with the cachet of six rings in Chicago. He wasn’t going anywhere before his initial five-year contract was up. Brown started with zero capital from Laker fans. The 272 regular-season games he won in Cleveland were treated like junk email because they didn’t produce any championships.
Jackson’s Lakers didn’t lose three consecutive games until midway through his third season in Los Angeles. Brown was at risk of doing so on his third day on the job.
That’s why urgency arrived quickly in this season, and the Lakers’ 96-71 victory over Utah stands as one of the most important of the initial week. Brown needed this victory to quell any internet insurrection. Now he has his first dollar bill he can frame and hang on the wall.
The Lakers can exhale. They got their first victory, and they’re one game away from Andrew Bynum returning from his suspension. The Lakers can also celebrate the end of their only set of back-to-back-to-back games. In one of the many scheduling quirks this season will bring, the Lakers had already played two games before the Jazz played one and rhythm might have been a bigger factor than fatigue.
Utah looked awful. The Jazz made only seven of 23 shots in the first quarter, then managed to dive deeper and shoot 6-for-27 in the second quarter.
There shouldn’t be too much glory attached to this Laker victory because the Jazz were so horrendous. Utah’s shot chart had more X’s than an illiterate autograph-signing session. Al Jefferson shot 2-for-16. Enes Kanter, in his NBA debut, didn’t get any of his three shots above the rim, coming up short on two layups and having the third attempt blocked.
At halftime the scoreboard looked like something from the days the Lakers wore MPLS on their chests. Lakers 41, Jazz 31. And Brown was OK with that.
The night before, he said that he wanted his team to be gritty more than anything else, that playing a game with a score in the 80s – as it was in the opening loss to the Chicago Bulls – didn’t bother him at all. What did upset him was the abhorrent pick-and-roll defense that yielded 100 points to the Kings in the loss at Sacramento.
Before the game, Brown went into a detailed explanation of how he wants the Lakers to force the ball handler into the middle rather than the sideline on side pick-and-roll plays. Jackson never would have done that; he didn’t think the media had the mental capacity to understand such in-depth analysis. And Jackson would have apologized to basketball fans around the world for being associated with something as painful to digest as this game.
To Brown, seeing his defenders in the right place and the Jazz miss all of those shots made this “a fun game for me to watch.”
“To hold a team to 32 percent and 71 percent in an NBA game, I don’t care who you’re playing you’re doing something right on that end of the floor,” Brown said. “The focus, the energy and effort and that communication and trust that we brought defensively, it was exciting to see.”
Maybe the dunks by Metta World Peace and Kobe Bryant were exciting, but at that was about it. Seeing the streamers come down and hearing “I Love L.A.” boom through the arena was what mattered most to Brown.
“It’s always exciting to get a win, especially to get a win after you’ve had two losses,” he said.
“Maybe this game was a step in the right direction,” World Peace said, “as far as us being around each other. We only played five games, and two of those were with Andrew [in the exhibition games]. We’ve still got to get used to paying with Andrew.”
They still have to get used to doing what Brown wants after hearing Jackson’s voice the previous seasons. Brown needs a further review to assess how we’ll they’re adapting.
“I’ve got to go back and watch the tape,” he said.
No one else wants to see a replay of this one. Then again, no one else needed this as much as Brown did.