Preseason though it was, the Lakers reentered Staples Center to play (somewhat) competitive basketball Saturday for the first game since exiting in June with their 16th championship in tow.
That title, earned in an NBA Finals Game 7 win against Boston, came despite a terrible shooting performance from Kobe Bryant, who missed 18 shots (six for 24).
And Bryant, recovering from off-season surgery on his right knee, has seemingly carried that slump into the preseason, as he entered Saturday's game against Denver shooting four for 28 (14.3%) from the field in three exhibition games.
But in the Lakers' 102-95 win against the Nuggets, Bryant had by far his best preseason performance, scoring 18 points on five-for-13 (38%) shooting and making eight of 11 from the free-throw line in 25 minutes. He also had eight rebounds and five assists.
Bryant wore a padded sleeve on his right knee after not wearing one in the Lakers' previous game against the Kings, and his mobility seemed OK, as he dived into the Nuggets' bench at one point for a loose ball.
His court vision also looked sharp, the guard throwing a nifty pass to rookie forward Derek Caracter for a dunk on one play, then a length-of-the-court pass for a Lamar Odom layup just before halftime on the next.
Fans got a nice replay of those highlights on the new $10-million high-definition video screen above the court.
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said he wasn't too worried about Bryant's low shooting percentage.
"It's just a byproduct of his knee," Jackson said before the game. "He's still going to shoot the ball. Kobe's going to try to experiment with it and see how he's doing.
"Some players would just say, 'Well, I'll play defense and pass the ball and spread the offense, but Kobe's still going to shoot it and see what happens. It's kind of interesting."
Forward Pau Gasol, who Jackson said may have to step up "for the worst case scenario" if Bryant and Andrew Bynum (knee) aren't at full speed until a few months into the season, scored 12 points on six-for-nine shooting.
With guard Sasha Vujacic out after sustaining a concussion in Thursday's practice, rookie forward Devin Ebanks got considerable minutes (24) as Jackson said he wants to work Ebanks in at the guard position.
"Not only does it give him a total scope of what we do, but it gives him an option to play another position on the floor in case we need that," Jackson said.
Ebanks scored 14 points on five-for-eight shooting.
The Lakers have four more exhibition games left before the reg-ular season starts Oct. 26 against Houston.
Nuggets Coach George Karl, who underwent treatment for neck and throat cancer in the off-season, was greeted warmly by Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak before the game.
Kupchak noticed Karl had lost about 50 pounds, saying, "The face looks like George."
Said Karl: "I haven't found many suits that fit me, I know that. I'm hoping I get some new ones here soon."
Karl, 59, who also battled prostate cancer in 2005, said he feels better these days, especially now that he's much slimmer.
Karl is 14 wins shy of 1,000 for his career. Only six coaches are ahead of him on the all-time victories list, including Phil Jackson.
Karl said he's happy to be back, and that it's a little like riding a bike.
"You have to get the feel of it back," he said, "but I don't think you forget."