Lakers show encouraging signs
LOS ANGELES -- The way the Los Angeles Lakers blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead Sunday certainly reeked of the devastating losses against the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals, but the overall basketball product was far from disappointing.
No Chris Paul. No Lamar Odom. No Shannon Brown. Kobe Bryant dealing with yet another serious injury. L.A.'s series of unfortunate events coupled with the team's utter meltdown in that 36-point loss to the Mavs to complete the sweep in May created the feeling of the franchise falling down.
But it's very possible this group is improving.
"Yes, I'm upset we lost the game," Bryant said, "but I saw a lot, a lot of positive things. A lot of them. A lot of them. So I'm very pleased."
That may seem like a lot of a lots, but think about how lousy the Lakers looked less than a week ago in that 114-95 preseason loss to the Clippers and how formidable they looked in Sunday's 88-87 loss to the Chicago Bulls, a team that led the NBA in wins last season with 62.
"We're going to score," new Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "I don't care who we play against, we're going to score. So, if we can get better defensively and then do the little things -- take care of the ball, knock down free throws, and so on and so forth -- we're going to be pretty doggone good."
Doggone good is a far cry from the doom and gloom that was being associated with this team.
They were supposed to be old, slow and not athletic enough. Enter the 22-year-old Devin Ebanks, a Trevor Ariza clone, who finished with eight points on 4-for-5 shooting and two assists in 23 effective minutes. Don't forget about 24-year-old Josh McRoberts, who was a bundle of energy, finishing with six points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots and who would have been the game's unsung hero if not for a couple of late missed free throws.
They were supposed to lack players who could hit open jump shots. Enter rookie Andrew Goudelock, who won Mike Brown over because "there's just something about that kid." He went 2-for-3 from 3-point range in his NBA debut Sunday, playing as Bryant's backup at the 2-guard. (He checks off a youth box on the Lakers' roster, too; he's 23.) Need more shooters? How about Troy Murphy going 3-for-5 off the bench and Jason Kapono, a two-time league leader in 3-point percentage, standing by?
They were supposed to lack depth after losing Odom, the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year, and Brown. But the Lakers' bench actually outscored the Bulls' bench 29-18, and Chicago's second unit is considered to be the class of the league. A healthy Steve Blake had 12 points, three rebounds and two assists while being freed from the triangle. Murphy flirted with a double-double with seven points and eight rebounds. Metta World Peace … well, he wasn't as terrible as he was in the preseason and chipped in four points, three assists, two steals and two rebounds. Plus, Matt Barnes and Kapono, two capable veteran contributors, didn't even play.
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Bryant had supposedly lost a step and Pau Gasol had supposedly checked out mentally after wilting in the playoffs. But on Sunday, Bryant, playing in a game just four days after a MRI showed he has a torn lunotriquetral ligament in the wrist that snaps his shooting hand, had 28 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals. Sure, he had eight turnovers, but just because those miscues contributed to the loss doesn't mean they'll be haunting him all season. Gasol had a modest line of 14 points, eight rebounds and three blocks, but he was the same, focused player that L.A. fans saw blossom into a four-time All-Star and two-time champion.
And they did all of that without their third-best player, Andrew Bynum, who was out of the lineup serving the first part of this four-game suspension.
"We have a strong spirit," Gasol said. "We trust in ourselves. We're going to fight and we're going to do our best we can to be the best team possible and see where that takes us."
Could it be that the Lakers transformed themselves from an underachieving favorite into an overachieving underdog?
It might be hard to pin underdog status on a team with a payroll north of $80 million that has a top-10 player of all time in its starting lineup in Bryant and the twin towers of Gasol and Bynum, but who is picking the Lakers to win it all these days? Dallas, Miami, Chicago and Oklahoma City are the pundit darlings.
The Lakers held the Bulls to 32 second-half points on 12-for-48 shooting (25 percent), showing what Brown's defensive schemes can do for a team. This was just opening night, mind you. How good can their D look with a 7-footer like Bynum plugging up the middle?
"We did some positive things," said Bryant, sounding like he actually meant it. "We did some really good things. We're going to be fine."
Maybe they'll be better than fine. Maybe they'll be doggone good.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.