LAKERS VS. ROCKETS GAME PREVIEW
By KATE HEDLIN
While so much attention during the NBA offseason was focused on the happenings in South Beach, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers were preparing to make a run for their third straight title in what could be the final season for coach Phil Jackson.
Bryant, Jackson and the Lakers will watch as the franchise's 16th championship banner is raised Tuesday night before taking on Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets in the season opener.
Despite being the defending champions, the Lakers (57-25) spent most of the summer overshadowed in terms of media and fan attention by the decisions of free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade with Miami.
While the Heat's moves were aimed at challenging Bryant and the Lakers, Los Angeles doesn't seem concerned.
"We're confident in ourselves," said Bryant, who averaged 27.0 points during the regular season and earned finals MVP honors for the second straight year. "I'm not a guy, and we're not a team, that worries about what other people are doing."
Bryant and the Lakers have good reason to be upbeat. They return nine players from their championship team, which defeated the Boston Celtics in seven games, while adding free agents Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Theo Ratliff.
"This team is still a juggernaut," forward Lamar Odom said. "We have so many people that can do it inside and out. No matter who's the first, second or third option, we're still one of the best offensive teams in the league."
Coaching Los Angeles' roster, which features an NBA-high payroll around $95 million, will be the 64-year-old Jackson, who put off retirement for at least another season.
The 11-time NBA champion coach has a .705 regular-season winning percentage, a record 225 postseason victories and two more titles than former Celtics coach Red Auerbach. While health issues caused him to consider retirement after last season, Jackson returned despite a pay cut.
The chance to win three consecutive titles for the fourth time enticed Jackson, while the responsibility of being defending champs caused several players to make key offseason decisions.
Pau Gasol skipped summer duties with the Spanish national team while Bryant and center Andrew Bynum each underwent knee surgery. Bynum will be sidelined for at least another month, with Odom starting in his place.
Bryant had his right knee surgically repaired, but chose not to undergo surgery on his right index finger after he fractured it last December. Although the finger still bothers Bryant, the recovery time would have taken longer than he wanted.
Bryant played through the injury last season, but at times struggled with his shot. He shot 45.6 percent during the regular season - his worst in four seasons - and 40.5 percent in the finals.
Jackson is likely to limit Bryant's minutes early on. He averaged almost 39 minutes per game last season, seventh in the NBA.
"I'm not as concerned about his shot as him just having the overall ability to have the energy he wants to play with," Jackson said. "His shot will come as soon as he gets that. He's the best caretaker of his own health I've ever seen. ... I think he just needs to play some ball, and he'll be fine."
One of the teams looking to challenge the Lakers in the West is Houston, which was busy after going 42-40 last season while missing the playoffs for the first time in four years.
The absence of Yao was a major factor, but the seven-time All-Star center appears set for his first action since May 8, 2009, when he broke his foot in the Rockets' loss to the Lakers in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals.
"I am very excited," Yao said. "I am just looking forward to playing a great season. I think I can count on my foot now."
The 7-foot-6 Yao, however, has missed time over the last four seasons due to leg and foot injuries, and concerns remain about how healthy he is. Coach Rick Adelman said he will limit Yao's minutes to no more than 24 per game.
"I'm just going to have to take the stance that I want to bring him along as he feels comfortable, and how it fits into our team," Adelman said. "It's got to be something that's positive for him.
"That's a long answer to say, I don't know how it's going to work out."
It should help that Yao, who has averaged 19.1 points and 9.3 rebounds in seven seasons, isn't expected to do it all. Aaron Brooks, the NBA's most improved player last season, is hoping for another big season after averaging 19.6 points and 5.3 assists, and Luis Scola is back after averaging 16.2 points and 8.6 rebounds.
The Rockets re-signed reserve point guard Kyle Lowry to join Brooks in the backcourt and acquired 7-foot Brad Miller to back up Yao.
Houston remains in transition after trading away Tracy McGrady and acquiring Kevin Martin, Jordan Hill and Jared Jeffries on Feb. 18. The Rockets also dealt swingman Trevor Ariza and added guard Courtney Lee during the summer.
Adelman hopes the increased depth will help. Only three Rockets players saw action in all 82 games last season and 13 other players missed a total of 208 games to injuries.
"I like our depth all the way through," Adelman said. "I don't think anybody should have to play 40 minutes. ... We have quality guys coming off the bench."
The Lakers won three of four against the Rockets last season, although they lost 101-91 at home Nov. 15.
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