Bryant, Lakers Choke Away Season Opener; Fall to Bulls

After the extended lockout and the shortened pre-season it was finally time to have real basketball games that matter. The Lakers opened their season today against reigning league MVP Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls at Staples Center.

The team entered this season facing more questions and scrutiny than any other Lakers squad since 2007, and came into today’s game as underdogs against the powerful Bulls. Part of this was because the team was without center Andrew Bynum, who served the first game of a four-game suspension he received after a flagrant foul against J.J. Barea of the Dallas Mavericks during last season’s Western Conference Semi-Finals.

Today also marked the regular season debut of new head coach Mike Brown. Brown, much like the team itself, has heard plenty of skeptical comments concerning his ability to lead this team moving forward. With the Bulls in town he didn’t have to wait long to see what his guys can do against elite NBA talent.

First Quarter

The Lakers started the game strong. While many people were expecting them to come out flat against a powerful Eastern Conference opponent they actually held the lead for much of the first quarter. A notable strength was the Lakers’ defense throughout the quarter. They were able to limit Derrick Rose substantially in the first quarter, holding him scoreless with just a single assist by the end of the first.

On the offensive end the Lakers found life a little more difficult. Without their center they had trouble finding any sort of rhythm. The offense ran through Kobe Bryant, who was playing today despite an injured wrist that he sustained last Monday in the pre-season opener against the Clippers. The wrist did appear to impact Bryant’s ballhandling in the first half, as he turned it over five times in the first half.

One notable moment for the team involved rookie Andrew Goudelock scoring the first points of his NBA career with a 3-point basket late in the quarter.

Second Quarter

After holding Rose down for the first quarter and a half the MVP finally was able to break out. Rose showed off his new and improved outside shot by connecting on a pair of 3-pointers from well beyond the line. Rose went 4-4 in the second quarter for 10 points, pushing the Bulls back ahead by the end of the half. Bryant went on a bit of a scoring binge himself, scoring eight points in the second on 4-5 shooting.

However, turnovers continued to plague the Lakers throughout the half. After turning the ball over 20-plus times in both pre-season affairs, the Lakers turned it over 10 times in the first half against Chicago. This led to seven points off turnovers for the Bulls in the first 24 minutes of play.

Towards the end of the half the Lakers pulled to within a point of the Bulls before Chicago went on a 6-0 run to finish the half. The run was sparked by Chicago forward Luol Deng, who connected on a 3-point shot from the corner before getting a three-point play the old fashioned way, scoring a driving lay-up while drawing a blocking foul on Lakers guard Derek Fisher.

Third Quarter

As poorly as the Lakers ended the second quarter that’s how well they began the third quarter. The team focused much more on getting into the paint and creating easy baskets. They also showed an increased attention on the defensive end, especially with their rotation. But, perhaps the biggest difference between the second and third quarters was the Lakers fastbreak attempts. There’s no question that this team isn’t going to be the best running team in the league this season, but for a brief stretch early in the third the team did get out in front of Chicago and run.

After some strong play from Pau Gasol and Bryant the Lakers managed to take their first lead since the first quarter at 65-63. Part of this was due to the disruptive play of forward Josh McRoberts. While the Bulls were looking to go inside and get easy baskets, McRoberts found ways to get in their way and force missed shots. There’s no question that he had a big impact in the quarter on both ends of the floor.

For Chicago the story continued to be Derrick Rose. His newfound range actually kept Chicago in the game during the Lakers’ offensive spurt late in the quarter. Through three quarters Rose shot 4-5 from downtown alone, resulting in 12 points from beyond the arc alone. Still, the Lakers did a decent job of shutting down the rest of the Chicago lineup. While Rose led the way with 18 points through three quarters, only two additional Bulls (Carols Boozer, Joakim Noah) had scored in double digits.

Fourth Quarter

Los Angeles opened the final quarter leading by a single point. They quickly extended that lead through some outside shots and solid play on defense. The Lakers interior defense was exceptional in the second half of the game, and early in the fourth they continued this trend. They also got some unexpected contributions from Andrew Goudelock, Troy Murphy and Steve Blake. All three connected on outside shots to help the Lakers push their lead to 76-68.

However, for the Lakers the biggest star of the night was Pau Gasol. After a sub-par post-season last May and an off-season that was filled with trade rumors, the seven-foot Spaniard showed up in force for the season opener. He was very disruptive in the paint on defense while having a strong impact on the offensive end as well.

As for new head coach Mike Brown, his debut was certainly a strong one. The Lakers looked like a strongly coached team for the first time in awhile, and really seemed to be responding. Brown’s defensive schemes focused on Rose, and forced Chicago to find other options to beat him with. The problem for the Bulls is that they had trouble finding these options.

Still, the game went down to the wire with both teams looking to steal the win. The Lakers had a chance to seal the deal with free throws but missed four late free throws that could have made it a little less stressful for the Lakers. The last few minutes of the game were frantic.

It came down to several key mistakes from Bryant that cost the Lakers a win. The team snatched defeat from the hands of victory as they say, as he committed a late turnover that should never have been made. With less than 24 seconds remaining Bryant simply had to wait and accept the foul before going to the line. Instead he forced a bad pass that the Bulls ended up stealing and taking the lead with.

Bryant had one last chance at redemption but saw his final shot blocked. The shot was another bad decision by Kobe, as he had three open teammates ready to receive the pass. While the Lakers may live and die with Bryant as their fourth quarter staple – tonight they died.

In the end there were plenty of positives to take from the game. The team played solid defense and hung with one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Still, the Bulls took home the victory 88-87 over the Lakers.

Key to the Game

Defense: The biggest difference between the Lakers tonight and the Lakers last season was the defense. Coach Brown clearly had a successful scheme to control Rose and force the Bulls to look elsewhere for offense. The Lakers interior defense was especially impressive, as Gasol and McRoberts did a tremendous job of disrupting Boozer and Noah in the paint. While Rose was able to put up a solid game statistically, the Lakers rotation and effort on the defensive end helped prevent the rest of the Bulls from causing too much disruption.

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