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Lakers' defense steals spotlight from Bynum, Oden

By Dave McMenamin,
Posted Oct 29 2008 10:41AM

LOS ANGELES -- If it was the double debut matchup of Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum that people paid to see Tuesday at STAPLES Center, they would have got more for their money by concentrating on role players Rudy Fernandez and Trevor Ariza.

The Lakers' defense shut down the Trail Blazers in all phases of the game in a 96-76 win. Portland scored just 34 points in the first half and shot .345 from the field as a team (29-for-84).

Before we get to the bench players that stepped up, or the L.A. defense that hunkered down, you have to talk about the missing men in the middle.

In opening minutes Bynum and Oden went at each other hard, like Don Draper and Duck Phillips in the board room during the Mad Men season finale kind of hard, but it ended up being a lot of noise signifying nothing.

Oden played 13 minutes in the first half and collected five rebounds and a block but also went 0-for-4 from the floor and 0-for-2 from the foul line with two fouls and two turnovers. The oh-no, not-again news is that the 7-footer, who missed all of last season recovering from microfracture surgery, tweaked his right foot when he landed on Derek Fisher's sneaker while going for an offensive rebound on the third play of the game.

He tried to tough it out, limping through the rest of the first and second quarters, but did not return after getting the foot X-rayed at halftime. The X-rays were negative and the injury is listed as a sprain for now, but Oden will undergo an MRI on Wednesday.

"Hopefully it's not anything serious and in a couple days he can be back," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said.

Portland fans waiting since June of 2007 to see their No. 1 pick in action had to feel like a kid on Christmas morning expecting to receive an shiny, new Xbox 360 and coming away with a broken Atari 2600.

Bynum's night wasn't quite as catastrophic, but it was hardly a dominant return to form. The fourth-year big man, playing in his first game since popping his kneecap out of place last January, scored eight points on 4-for-10 shooting and had three blocks, which lose some of their luster when you consider that he grabbed just three rebounds.

His birthday bash-inspired YouTube clip ended up being a bigger story than his play. Before the game, Lakers head coach Phil Jackson said he stumbled upon his starting center thumbing $1 bills into the crowd during his 21st birthday party by accident after checking out another viral video of San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Singletary's press conference meltdown earlier this week.

"[That was] a kid coming out of his teens and coming into adulthood," Jackson said before adding, "He said it was only $100 ... all ones."

While Bynum made it rain off the court, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol made it rain buckets on the court.

Gasol scored all 15 of his points in the first half as the Lakers built a 15-point lead at intermission and Bryant picked up right where he left off in his MVP season of a year ago, finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds and five assists and in the process one-upping LeBron James' first-night totals of 22, seven and six in a loss to the Celtics.

Eleven out of 16 experts might have predicted that the MVP is James' for the taking this year, but Bryant doesn't look ready to relinquish the Maurice Podoloff trophy anytime soon.

Ariza made his comeback a little more memorable than Bynum's. Ariza only played 24 games with the Lakers last season after breaking his foot in January, but quickly erased any doubts about his health with a dunk on Joel Przybilla followed by a 3-pointer from the wing in the span of 40 seconds in the second quarter.

He finished with 11 points, two rebounds, two blocks an assists and a steal.

The Trail Blazers saw their Rookie of the Year candidate go out and their former ROY, Brandon Roy, start the game off 0-for-9 out of the gates, but Fernandez gave them at least something to smile about going into Friday's game against the Spurs.

The rookie swingman out of Spain poured in 16 points off the bench including a 3-for-5 mark from downtown to go with four assists and two steals.

"Rudy was the one player that was pretty aggressive out there tonight," McMillan said. "He made some shots and went to the basket hard."

It was an up and down night for the Trail Blazers' other two rookies as well. McMillan decided to start Travis Outlaw at small forward after dangling the idea of going with 19-year old Frenchman Nicolas Batum in recent weeks and Jerryd Bayless got a chance to run the point. Batum didn't enter until garbage time and Bayless went 1-for-5 with a 0-to-2 assist-to-turnover ratio.

"I didn't want youth out there and tonight you saw what youth looks like," McMillan said when explaining the decision to go with Outlaw. "I went with the known and I left the unknown alone."

More impressive than any individual performances was the Lakers' defense as a whole. McMillan labeled L.A. "the aggressors" and lamented that his team just wasn't ready for that type of pressure.

"We did a great job [defensively]," Lakers guard Jordan Farmar said. "Honestly, we were talking, we were helping, we were rotating. There were a couple of possessions where I was like, 'There's nothing open for them' and they had shot clock violations or long shots at the buzzer. It was just great team defense."

There are still some things the Lakers can work on, especially if they want to live up to Farmar's pregame message to the crowd in which he talked about the urgency the Lakers feel about winning a championship.

For one, L.A.'s defense led to a quality amount of fastbreak opportunities, but the team repeatedly mucked up those sprint outs by throwing sloppy lobs to Bynum that got broken up. It was like watching a driver who knows he locked his keys in the car but continues to try to jiggle the door handle open a few dozen times anyway.

Before the game Jackson likened the 2008-09 Trail Blazers to the young New Orleans Hornets team of last season that took the league by storm.

"I think this team is going to be the one that surprises people as they go along," Jackson said.

The question now is: Will the Trail Blazers be surprising people for the worse?

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