Laker fans filled Staples Center to relive the glory of last year, to see the rings handed out and banner number 16 unveiled.
They got that and more. They got the full Lakers treatment from last season (the regular season). They got the good and the bad. There was a half of sloppy defense, a half where the Lakers passed up good shots and took bad ones, the half of Kobe being inefficient, a half where they get outworked by the opponent.
And of course, they got a win. Not tacos, but a win. Lakers 112-110.
The Rockets did their part of not making anything easy — they work harder than maybe any team in the league. That’s why the Rockets were up 15 in the third quarter. That and fantastic play from Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin in what will be one of the best backcourts in the league — they combined for 50 points in this one.
Midway through the third quarter those Lakers fans got to see the team that earned those gaudy rings. The Lakers that hit big shots — Shannon Brown has developed a jumper and isn’t afraid to use it. The Lakers that feed off those big shots to up their defense intensity, in this case creating 11 second-half turnovers and slowing the Rockets transition game (Houston had five fewer possessions in the second half compared to the first).
The Rockets hustled and scrapped, like they did last season. This season Yao Ming is supposed to be the leader that can convert that hustle into more wins. Maybe he can in a month. But Tuesday he looked rusty, missing chip shots and generally looking out of synch, fouling out in his 24 minutes. He made some plays, he missed a lot more. He looked like a guy who just missed 15 months of competitive basketball.
“I’m not worried about that,” Yao said of his 4 of 11 shooting. “Those will take a little bit of time. I feel pretty good out there. I’m running up court, up and back, and I’m helping the team on defense.”
But these are the Lakers. They will get points from Kobe Bryant (27) and Pau Gasol (29 and 11 rebounds) but it is the other guys that kill you. And every night it’s a different guy. Or guys.
Tuesday it was Shannon Brown and Steve Blake’s turn.
Brown spent another summer working on his outside shot, and in the preseason he showed off not only it but also the confidence to use it. A guy who only wanted to get to the rim before no longer fears pulling up from 15. Or 23 feet, as he was 4-5 from three on the night.
The there was Blake, who was tentative in the first half, hesitating on good looks to pass to a man more covered in the post. Then late in the first half he got a wide-open look when his man got picked off on down screen, and Blake nailed the three.
Blake saved his best for last. With 20 seconds remaining Bryant drove the lane as Gasol cut with him, so four Rocket defenders crashed the paint. Bryant whipped a pass back right over the head of a confused-looking Gasol to a wide open Blake who buried the dagger three.
It’s like that with the Lakers. Almost never a blowout, but always somebody you can’t account for with the dagger. Just like last season.