Opening night of the 2008-09 NBA season was officially the start of the Lakers' quest for redemption. After finishing last season as the second best team in the league, this season's goal is singular: to get back to the Finals and emerge as the champions. Tonight they got off to a great start, comfortably handling the young Portland Trail Blazers by a score of 96-76.
Kobe Bryant started the first half sluggishly, trying too hard to make highlight plays and struggling through some cold shooting early. But even before Kobe scored his first point, the team had jumped out to a 13-4 lead, thanks to nine quick points from Pau Gasol. Pau looks as if he'll be the biggest beneficiary of having Andrew Bynum back in the middle drawing the majority of the interior defense's attention.
It got worse from there pretty quickly for the Blazers. L.A. was able to build a 22-point lead at 49-27, and Kobe had only chipped in six points up until then. But some sloppy play at the end of the second quarter allowed Portland to cut the lead to 15 by halftime, and they continued to make a dent in the lead by going on a 14-0 run from the end of the second through the beginning of the third quarter, eventually cutting the Laker lead to eight at 49-41. But that's as close as the Blazers got. Kobe began to assert himself, scoring 13 points in the quarter, and the Lakers were able to push the lead back to 19 by the end of the third.
Defensively, the Lakers appeared to frustrate the Blazers all night, holding them to just 34 total points on a dismal 34.5% from the field. Was it all the Lakers' defense, or was Portland having an off night? Phil Jackson said after the game it may have been a bit of both.
"We made them take hurried shots with the clock running down or out of their comfort zone. But they did miss some open shots so we can't take all the credit."
Lamar Odom wasn't quite as modest.
"You gotta make a team miss shots. If you leave them wide open, they'll hit 'em. So, it was our defense."
Besides the hype of opening night, the game was also billed as a marquee matchup of two of the league's most potential-filled young big men: the Lakers' Andrew Bynum, and the Blazers' Greg Oden. But it looks like fans hoping to see a real battle battle between the two will have to wait a bit for them to round more into form. Bynum looked like he was trying to force the action from the get go, posting up Oden and attempting to back him down the very first time he got the ball. But after a few post moves, Bynum threw up a shot that Oden swatted to the three-point line.
That was Oden's only highlight, however; he played just 12 minutes and left the game in the first half with a foot injury. The extent of the injury is not yet known, and he did try to tape it at halftime and play through it. But he was held out as a precaution, and we'll have to wait and see just how serious it is. In limited action though, Oden picked up two fouls and was held scoreless on 0-4 shooting. Both he and Bynum were coming off of knee injuries from a season ago, and both are expected to be forces at their positions for years to come.
Overall, the Lakers depth of talent may make them too tough for most teams to handle. The team's biggest problem during the regular season might just be finding enough minutes to go around. They can go nine deep with quality players, all of whom have no problem coming in and contributing right away. And that will be a huge advantage as the season wears on, because they can distribute the minutes and not worry about burning out their starters. For a team that has aspirations of getting back to the Finals next June, that's something that could go a long way.