With one decisive lineup change, Coach Mike Brown signaled that the most crucial part of the Lakers' season is in session. It could last several more months thanks to the dynamic energy Ramon Sessions brings to their lineup.
Brown waited four games to assess his new point guard before moving Sessions into the starting lineup on Friday. Sessions rewarded Brown's faith by scoring 13 of his 20 points in the second half and dishing off a season-high 11 assists as the Lakers pulled away late for a 103-96 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers before an animated sellout crowd at Staples Center.
Andrew Bynum had 28 points and Kobe Bryant had another iffy shooting night (five for 17, 18 points) as the Lakers won for the seventh time in nine games and increased their Pacific division lead over the Clippers to 31/2 games. Sessions, who played 35 minutes, recorded his 23rd career double-double. He also had six rebounds in bringing new speed and poise to the floor, especially in the second half. The Lakers' 33 assists were a season high, on 40 baskets.
"We keep on moving the ball, it's tough to guard us," Sessions said.
Newly designated backup Steve Blake played 18 minutes and had two points, two rebounds, one assist and two turnovers.
"It was a little different coming out with the starting unit," Sessions said. "Each day is getting better. . . . I just started being aggressive and playing my game."
LaMarcus Aldridge, playing an assertive and physical game without much challenge, led the Trail Blazers (22-26) with 29 points but scored only eight after halftime.
Brown didn't even mind that Pau Gasol was only five for 14 from the field, or that Gasol and Bryant were a combined 10 for 31.
"We scored 103 points off 47.1% shooting. Everyone might think I'm an offensive coach now," Brown said, laughing.
The Lakers shot 61.9% in the first quarter, with Bynum scoring six of their first eight points en route to leading them in the first half with 16, on seven-for-13 shooting. But Aldridge was almost unstoppable, scoring 21 in the first half on 10-for-12 shooting. He began the game averaging 21.2 points.
The Lakers' biggest lead was 12, last held at 42-30 with 6:58 left in the second quarter. The Trail Blazers kept it close the rest of the way, though, and had a chance to take the lead early in the fourth quarter on a bad pass by Sessions that was grabbed by Jamal Crawford and taken the length of the court. However, Matt Barnes blocked Crawford's attempted layup. A few minutes later, Barnes ignited the crowd with a 23-foot jumper that put the Lakers ahead, 78-74.
Portland stayed close, with Raymond Felton's three-pointer cutting the Lakers' lead to 90-89 with just over three minutes left. But Sessions' 26-foot three-pointer padded the Lakers' lead to 93-89 and made him a sure crowd favorite. Barnes followed that with a driving layup that put the Lakers ahead, 95-89, and they weren't threatened from there.
"Sessions did a great job controlling tempo for us," Brown said. ". . . To have a double-double in 35 minutes is not bad."
Brown said before the game that he would begin to shrink his rotation and lean on experienced players, meaning rookie guard Andrew Goudelock won't play much, if at all. With one game's starting experience Sessions looked solid Friday, and so did the Lakers.