The days past slowly for some, went by in the blink of an eye for others. But after 133 days of summer, the Lakers finally tore off the plastic wrap on their new season Tuesday night with a dominating defensive performance in a 96-76 win over the Portland Trailblazers at the Staples Center.
Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 23 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Pau Gasol added 15 points and seven rebounds.
It was Game 1 in what they’re hoping will be another nine-month journey, Step 1 in their quest to return to the NBA Finals, where their season ended so sourly last June.
Since then, they’ve searched their souls, their games, and just about anything else that might offer a code to crack the riddle the Celtics used to befuddle them. Five weeks of training camp have offered a few answers and some space to help cleanse their palettes. But just as most of the Lakers players arrived at Staples Center Tuesday afternoon, video of the Celtics raising their 17th championship banner to the rafters of TD Banknorth Arena in Boston streamed across the television screens throughout the building.
“It feels great to start the season, but there’s some mixed emotion because the last time we played a real game it was the Finals,” Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic said. “It’s still painful …that’s why we have to make a statement right away.”
“I’m not wearing green this year,” Vujacic said. “No green. I’m serious. Anything with green is in the back of my closet now.”
Direct revenge against the Celtics will have to wait until Christmas, so on Tuesday night the young, up-and-coming Trailblazers would have to do and the Lakers wasted no time in announcing their supremacy.
“It’s been a long summer, but it’s here now,” Lakers point guard Derek Fisher said. “There’s a certain adrenaline that flows (on opening night) that doesn’t flow on any other day.”
It was scheduled for opening night, presumably, to showcase what many feel could develop into one of the best rivalries in the league.
But of course that depends on whether Portland actually develops into the fearsome team many believe they could be with young stars Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden, last season’s No. 1 overall draft pick who missed all of last season following microfracture surgery on his knee.
“The Lakers are the Western Conference champions until someone knocks them off,” Roy said. “It’s great to measure yourself against the best team in your first game.”
Early on, the Lakers showed just how large the gap Portland will have to close, jumping out to a 24-14 lead at the end of the first quarter behind nine points from Pau Gasol. Their commitment to defense was evident from the opening tip as coach Phil Jackson rotated in nine players during the first 12 minutes so there would be fresh legs to pester the young Blazers into poor shots, decisions and situations.
Portland made just seven of its first 24 shots (29 percent) in the first quarter. By halftime, the Lakers had stretched the lead to 49-34. Portland made a little run at the start of the third quarter, but the Lakers had a quick answer, extending the lead out to 67-46 with 2:36 remaining in the third quarter.
Oden, who only began playing 5-on-5 again at the start of training camp, got into early foul trouble and was not a factor, missing all four shots he took in the first half, and did not come out of the locker room after halftime with a right foot injury.
The Lakers young, potential franchise center, Andrew Bynum, got off to a slightly more auspicious start with a nice lay-in off a Vladimir Radmanovic miss, but still looked to have some wrinkles to iron out, missing a lob from Lamar Odom and struggling to find scoring opportunities.
It’s a rivalry many feel could become one of the best individual match-ups in the NBA, but Tuesday night it seemed a long way off and a little forced.
“This is really the first time we’ve played against each other,” Oden said.
There had been reports the two big men had played against each other as sixth graders, but Oden said he had no memory of the meeting.
“Honestly, it was a long time ago for me,” Oden joked. “I came across a lot of people in the sixth grade. I couldn’t tell you what he was like.”
Bynum finished with eight points points on 4-of-10 shooting, three rebounds and five fouls in 27 minutes of action.