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Lakers come out blazing

This is hopefully the first taste of things to come

October 29, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

As rallying cries go, it won't bring a tear to your eye, although it may leave some lettuce on your lips.

As team mantras go, it was more about cheese than championships, but it's the only way to get there.

The Lakers stormed through Staples Center in the season opener Tuesday with a forearm-shivering statement that delighted the freebie-loving crowd.

Win One for the Tacos.

Yeah, this season is about defense, which Phil Jackson preached and the Lakers played, bumping and grinding their way to a 96-76 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

Yeah, that means this season is also about tacos, two of which were won by every fan Tuesday as the Lakers held the Trail Blazers to under 100 points and fulfilled the popular promotional promise.

"That's the most important thing around here, right?" said Sasha Vujacic. "The tacos?"

If they keep playing defense like this, in eight months they'll be delivering the whole enchilada.

"This is the type of thing we've been trying to do," said Kobe Bryant afterward with a sweaty grin.

So now we know how they spent the fourth months since last season's final meltdown against the Boston Celtics.

They copied them.

The last time we saw them, they were suffering an embarrassing 39-point defeat in the clinching Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

If you can't beat them, well, you know the rest.

This wasn't Showtime, it was Shove-time.

This wasn't the Lake Show, it was the Take Show.

They took the career debut from Greg Oden, who looked like some immature lug from the Southern Section, stumbling and bumbling against Andrew Bynum, and this was before he sprained his foot and finished with zero points.

They took the perimeter from Brandon Roy, the Blazers' All-Star who dried up under the Kobe lamp, going 0 for 6 in the first half and finishing with just five baskets in 15 attempts.

They took the middle from everyone else, with LaMarcus Aldridge and Channing Frye combining to go four for 19, Frye getting shut out in nearly 17 minutes.

"It was amazing, it was the first thing we talked about in training camp," said Vujacic. "If we want to win a championship, we have to play a better defense."

Besides the defense, there were several other early answers, all of them positive.

How does Bynum look? A little slow to the boards, a little grounded on ally-oops, but strong defensively with as many blocked shots -- three -- as the entire Blazers team.

"We're not asking him to do anything other than rebound and defend," said Jackson, and Bynum at least did one of those things.

How does Pau Gasol complement Bynum? How about seven baskets in 10 attempts, seven rebounds, hustle everywhere?

How will Lamar Odom react to coming off the bench? He played the third-most minutes on the team, energizing the floor with nine points and seven rebounds.

"I think Lamar will do whatever is necessary for the team," said Jackson, and yes, he did.

Afterward, only one eternal question loomed large.

Why do people still go crazy when the scoreboard shows David Beckham? Why do people even still know who he is?

On Tuesday, it made more sense to cheer fan Jon Cryer, because the Lakers played like two-and-a-half teams.

There was an in-your-face team, the Lakers holding the Blazers to 35% shooting.

There was an on-your-back team, the Lakers outrebounding the Blazers, 49-44.

Then, of course, there was the Bryant team.

This time last year, Bryant was booed here. One MVP trophy and Olympic gold medal and Finals appearance later, he is beloved again, and is doing the same sorts of things that earlier changed everyone's mind.

In the beginning, he was the facilitator, the Lakers running off to a 13-4 lead before Bryant even took a shot. At halftime, he had scored just six points.

But then, when the Blazers closed to within single digits in the third quarter and the Lakers needed Bryant to be the scorer, he took the ball and fired.

Remember the Olympic finale against Spain? This was like that, Bryant making six of nine second-half shots, finishing with 23 points and a team-leading 11 rebounds.

"We have a lot of depth, so I pick and choose my spots," Bryant said.

Before the game, Vujacic said what everyone had been thinking.

"Everyone knows the championship is out there waiting for us," he said. "We just have to take it."

And so for one game, they did.

Before the game, Jackson made the statement that this team is better than last year's Finals contenders -- sort of.

"I think we are a better team," he said. "But 'substantially' is not an adjective I'm sure I'd use."

Not yet. But if Tuesday's commitment to defense was any indication, that word is coming, the Lakers improving in ways only a taco lover would understand.

From soft to crunchy.


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