James Harden proves too much for Lakers in what is dreary opener for Los Angeles


LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant vs. Dwight Howard. The Lakers’ cornerstone vs. the guy who spurned the team. That’s how it was billed, that’s how it was sold on talk radio in Los Angeles. And the two men had their moment. They clearly don’t like one another.

However, maybe people should have talked more about James Harden.

He torched the Lakers in transition all night, he was draining threes, he was hitting step backs over Kobe, he was posting up Ronnie Price, he was slashing into the lane, he was basically doing whatever he wanted on the way to 32 points on 17 shots (he got to the line 16 times). When the Lakers made a third quarter push to cut the lead of a blowout game down to 7, Harden got a big and-1 on Kobe Bryant to stem the tide and restore order.

That led the Rockets to a relatively easy 108-90 win over the Lakers in the season opener for both teams.

This was a game overshadowed by a tibia fracture to promising Lakers rookie Julius Randle, who went down in the fourth quarter. He was taken to the hospital where surgery is likely. While no timeline for his return has been given, think in terms of months, this is a weight-bearing bone.

After the game that injury put a damper on things… and the Lakers were already pretty down after a rough first game.

“They’re a good basketball team and now we know we’re a ways away,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said after the game.

Particuarly defensively. Houston was able to get the ball inside, posting up Howard a few times but mostly from the slashing of Patrick Beverley and Harden. Then they either finished or kicked out (and made an extra pass) to get guys open looks at the arc. Look at it this way — only 3.7 percent of the Rockets points came on midrange shots, the least efficient shots in the game. They got their points at the free throw line, in the paint or at the arc — Trevor Ariza made five buckets all night and all of them came on uncontested three pointers (according to Sports VU data from the game).

“I thought we played really well tonight, and there are things we can really build on and learn,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.

The very efficient Rockets offense scored 31 points on 23 possessions in the first quarter and finished the game with a 113.7 offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions). Terrence Jones had 16 points and 13 rebounds for the Rockets, Howard had 13 points (on 3-of-5 shooting) and 11 rebounds.

Lakers fans — and their coaching staff — are left scouring the film trying to find bright spots.  As a team Los Angeles shot 35.4 percent, with a true percentage of 37.3 (compared to 50.7 for the Rockets).

One bright spot is Kobe Bryant looked about as good as one might have hoped after missing a season and having two major surgeries. He had 19 points to lead the Lakers, but he took 17 shots to get there as Trevor Ariza did a solid job on him all night.

Jeremy Lin struggled in the first half with Patrick Beverley on him. Kobe had a team-high 19 points but on 6-of-17 shooting. Ed Davis played well again (as he did in preseason). Carlos Boozer added the empty 17 points, although like with his time in Chicago it felt fairly meaningless. The Lakers also showed a stretch of better, more energized play in the third quarter, they just couldn’t sustain it.

For the Rockets, it was a win and they will take it, no matter how pretty.

For the Lakers… well, things have to get better, right?



Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard have little dust up; Kobe calls Howard “soft” (VIDEO)


LOS ANGELES — “They just don’t like each other, simple as that.”

That was how Lakers coach Byron Scott described this fourth quarter dust up between Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard on opening night Tuesday (a game that was an easy win for the Rockets). It came when Howard grabbed a rebound and Kobe, who had mistimed a jump to tip it in, stayed close to body and slow Howard’s outlet pass (the Rockets had crushed the Lakers all game in transition). Howard came through with some elbows to clear space and caught Kobe in the jaw.

The two chirped back and forth at each other, with Kobe saying “try me” several times then later calling Howard “soft.”

You could feel the animosity — and Lakers fans at Staples Center came alive. This was the one thing they had to cheer for in an otherwise dreary opening night.

After review the referees gave Kobe a personal foul, Howard a flagrant foul, and both men got a technical.

After the game both players avoided the discussion as much as possible.

“It’s the game,” Bryant said. “An elbow is a part of the game. Trash talk is part of the game. I don’t know when the NBA because so sensitive. It’s all part of it.”

Rockets coach Kevin McHale — a very physical player back in his day — simply said “that’s basketball.”

But I think Scott hit the nail on the head — these two didn’t even shake hands pregame. We know how they feel.

Lakers’ rookie Julius Randle taken off court on stretcher with fractured tibia, surgery likely


LOS ANGELES — The Lakers long slog of a season just got even longer… and it’s only one game in.

Promising rookie Julius Randle, the No. 7 pick in the last draft, left the season opener on a stretcher in the fourth quarter after suffering a fractured tibia, coach Byron Scott confirmed.

He was trasported to the hospital, where surgery is likely.

“It is heartbreaking…” Scott said. “I told him to stay strong, that these tests show the true character of a man.”

Randle started his drive from the right wing and when he got in the lane he had contact with Donatas Motiejunas that seemed to take his legs out from under him a little, and when he landed he seems to have come down wrong and broken something in his right shin area. The contact wasn’t unusual for an NBA game, it seemed to catch him just right.

Randle went down and stayed down. Quickly Lakers trainer Gary Vitti was over with him. As he stayed down more and more teammates came over to be around him, especially once the stretcher came out.

The Staples Center crowd, which had been riled up minutes before when Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard exchanged words (and got technicals) fell silent.

Randle’s development was one of the few things Lakers fans could really look at as hope for the future with this roster. The Lakers were getting easily handled by the Rockets on opening night but Randle showed some flashes, particularly when paired with Ed Davis. He was the Lakers highest draft pick in decades and there were a lot of Lakers’ fans hopes pinned on him.

Which is why opening night felt like it was going to make a long season even longer.

Kevin McHale on Dwight Howard’s back: “It’s night and day from where he was last year”


LOS ANGELES — If the Rockets are going to take the step forward they expect this season it’s going to come down to their defense getting much better. And if their defense is going to get better that’s going to come down in large part to Dwight Howard regaining his Defensive Player of the Year form.

We haven’t seen that from Howard in years, since the back issues he started to have in Orlando that followed him to Los Angeles and Houston.

But Rockets coach Kevin McHale says Howard is healthy enough to be that guy again this year.

“(His back is) way better this year,” McHale said before his team took to the court to open the season against the Lakers. You can see it he’s bending better, he’s moving better, it’s night and day from where he was last year at this time. And I really felt last year at this time he was night and day ahead of where he was in July when we signed him.

“This summer part of him wanted to play with Team USA and all that stuff but part of him just needed to stretch and just take care of himself and I’m glad he did.”

Much of the focus since Howard was in Los Angeles was on his mental makeup, critics saying he wasn’t tough enough, was too much about having fun and not taking the game seriously. But a lot of what kept Howard from being Howard the past two seasons was physical — his back wasn’t right.

If it is now that’s good news for Rockets fans. McHale said he looks good, although after missing part of camp he may see slightly reduced minutes to start the season.

“Dwight is a freakish athlete,” McHale said. “He didn’t run a lot this summer, did a lot of stretching, a lot of strengthening, he came to camp and said ‘my wind is not going to be good,’ then in three days he’s running up and down the court. I was like ‘I wish I could have done that.'”

He can show Kobe Bryant and the Lakers how he looks on national television Tuesday night.

Dwight Howard: I didn’t fear Kobe Bryant


An ESPN article alleged Kobe Bryant made the Lakers less appealing to other star players. Of course, Dwight Howard was cited as a key example.

That aspect really isn’t groundbreaking.

Phil Jackson said Howard left for the Rockets because of Kobe, and reports at the time matched. There has been no shortage of articles on the Kobe-Dwight divide.

But Lakers president Jeanie Buss added a twist when she said, “Any free agent that would be afraid to play with Kobe Bryant is probably a loser, and I’m glad they wouldn’t come to the team.”

Howard, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

“I didn’t leave LA because I was afraid of Kobe Bryant,” Howard said. “I went to a good situation for myself. I can’t change people’s opinions, but I did what I had to do for myself.”

Howard might have left Los Angeles, because of Kobe. It doesn’t mean he feared Kobe.

Buss’ attempt to frame the conversation as players being afraid to play with Kobe was a smart player on her part, but it’s not really the issue. Maybe teammates just don’t enjoy playing with Kobe, especially when he’s no longer good enough to lead a team to a championship.

Paul George said he didn’t avoid the Lakers due to Kobe, and so has Carmelo Anthony. But Howard didn’t go that far. He just said he didn’t fear Kobe.

In this case, the distinction likely matters.