Lakers forward Ron Artest goes for a reverse layup against Rockets center… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The ring ceremony was dramatic and emotional, as such things often tend to be, but the Lakers weren't done providing the crowd with its evening entertainment.
Fall behind the Houston Rockets by 15 points? Sure.
Make Kobe Bryant look like he's another month from a full recovery? Why not?
Give the fans a fourth quarter of nail-biting tension after a shaky 36 minutes? Indeed.
It wasn't simple or entirely sanguine, but the Lakers held off the Rockets for a 112-110 victory in a season opener Tuesday at Staples Center.
Bryant shook off a ragged start and the reserves led the Lakers back into the game, allowing their followers to go home satisfied, the lasting image of the night projected on towering white sheets during pre-game introductions: "The Trilogy Continues."
The back-to-back champions had their issues, starting with Ron Artest's wayward shot (eight points on three-for-15 shooting) and continuing with Derek Fisher's quiet night (two points, one-for-seven shooting). Neither player returned for the fourth quarter, Coach Phil Jackson content to go with a smaller lineup that included Shannon Brown and Steve Blake.
It turned out to be the right move, but barely.
Only after Aaron Brooks missed a reverse layup at the buzzer could the Lakers exhale, their title defense beginning where they left off back in June — a victory in front of an energized, exhausted crowd.
"We're fortunate to win this game," Jackson said.
Bryant, who had knee surgery in July, had 27 points on eight-for-20 shooting and added seven assists in 37 minutes. Pau Gasol had 29 points and 11 rebounds.
Blake made a pair of three-pointers late in the third quarter, and then Brown picked it up in the fourth quarter with a fastbreak layup and three-pointer for a 91-86 lead.
Brown finished with 16 points, and Blake had 10, including the go-ahead three-pointer with 18.8 seconds left. He also added up-close defense in the final seconds that forced Brooks into an off-balance shot blocked by Odom.
It was quite an initial impact for Blake, who signed a four-year, $16-million contract with the Lakers as a free agent in July.
"You never know what's going to come," Blake said. "I definitely didn't expect to hit a late-game shot like that, but I was definitely ready for it."
The ring ceremony set the tone for the evening.
"This is what we play for," Jackson said, basking in the fans' ovation.
Fisher introduced Bryant, calling him the "world's best basketball player" and sharing a lengthy hug with him.
Bryant thanked the fans and owner Jerry Buss, whom he called "the greatest owner in the history of team sports." Then a black curtain moved down slowly to reveal the Lakers' 2009-10 championship banner on the south wall of the arena.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Miami lost to Boston, 88-80, with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combining for only 21 points.
It brought to mind something Jackson said in training camp: "I still think basketball's won with defense, and the Celtics play defense and they know how to do it."
The Lakers didn't show much defensively in the first half, as Brooks and fellow guard Kevin Martin tore through them for 37 points, helping provide a 62-51 lead.
Before that, things didn't look promising for the Lakers, down 33-26 after the first quarter with Bryant sitting at two points on one-for-five shooting.
It still might be a while before Bryant regains full strength in his knee, but by the end of the game, his play lent some credence to a fan's T-shirt: "The real king plays in Los Angeles."