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The Wild Wild West: They’re Off!

Lots of big stories after the first weekend—the Lakers, the Clippers, the Warriors, the Blazers, the Rockets. The New Orleans Hornets emerged from the season’s first weekend with a gaudy 2-1 record. Hey, that’s a .667 percentage. The Spurs, after a mere three games are the team in the West without a loss. The Kings, the Nuggets and the Lakers stumbled out of the gate with 0-3 records.

First things first—the Lakers, who lost on opening night to Dallas, 98-91.  Their starting lineup had an average age of 32 and, as you might expect, they came out slow on both offense and defense. The Dirk-less Mavs, featuring speed demons like Darren Collison and Roddy Beaubois, ran rings around the Lakers, and Steve Nash looked downright slow.  Still, the team’s age and slowness wouldn’t have mattered if Dwight Howard hadn’t shot 3-14 from the foul line and if Jordan Hill hadn’t chipped in a 1-for-6. The Lakers missed 19 foul shots (12-31). Dallas missed four (14-18). The difference is 15 points! That means the Lakers, who lost by eight points, should have won by seven!

Embarrassing. The Lakers, home opener, hoopla, Jack Nicholson firmly in place, with all the team’s stars in the lineup, lose by eight points to a team that’s on the road, without its best player and its starting center(Chris Kaman), and the supposed Savior of the Franchise, Howard, misses 11 foul shots all by himself.

Howard had a good night otherwise, unless you count the fact that he fouled out after 37 minutes and his team lost. (You want real dominance? Wilt Chamberlain never fouled out in his career. No knock on Howard. Just adding some perspective.) Possibly weirder than Howard’s foul shooting was Kobe’s line. He shot well from the field (11-14) but never went to the foul line, had no assists and one rebound. The Lakers had three guys in double figures; the Mavs had six.

And that was Game One. Eighty-one to go.

Next night, same deal. Portland, who is rebuilding and hardly has playoff expectations, also ran rings around the Lakers, with super-quick rookie Damian Lillard living up to the hype. Dude scored 23 points with 11 assists and hit all eight of his free throws in his NBA debut. Nicholas Batum was also out-quicking the Lakers all night long.

Howard had a great game this time and even hit his foul shots. His two-day average at the line—combining his laughably bad 3-14 and his very good 15-19—was 54%, close to his career average.

And though Nash played only 16 minutes before leaving with a leg injury that will force him to miss a month or more, he looked faster than he did in the first game, and much like the old Steve.

The Lakers’ third game was against the Clippers– for Los Angeles supremacy, for the Pacific division, for the Western Conference.  For big-time bragging rights. Right now it’s “advantage, Clippers.” The once reviled Clips entered the fourth quarter with a 15-point lead and coasted home.

The Clippers had a balanced attack–five guys in double figures compared to three for the Lakers. The Clippers scored 63% of their field goals on assists. The Lakers, 44%. Chris Paul had 15 assists, exactly the same number of assists as the entire Lakers team. The Clips had almost half as many turnovers (11 to 20) as the Lakers and almost twice as many steals (12 to 7).

Kobe Bryant took 23 of the team’s 68 shots. That’s two-thirds. Dwight Howard took seven shots. What’s up with that? Pau Gasol took nine shots in 38 minutes. And why is he playing 38 minutes? And why is Kobe playing 42 minutes?

I was curious about Dwight’s foul-shooting in Game Three. Would it reveal the good Dwight (15-19) or the bad Dwight (3-14)? Neither. He went 5-for-10. The average Dwight.

Watching the Lakers defense get shredded by Chris Paul, the third straight speedy point guard the Lakers have faced, made me see how far the Clips could go with Paul playing at such a high level. Jamal Crawford, heading for a career year, leads a bench that is second to none. I’m also impressed with Caron Butler. He’s playing better than ever. The Clips are about as old as the Lakers but their two best players—Paul and Griffin—are young. Most of the age is on the bench. The Lakers age is in the starting lineup. Big difference. The Clips are poised to soar this year.

The Warriors looked very good cooling off the Clippers, 114-110, at Staples Center Saturday night. Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack are the two keys to the Dubyas’ success so far. They bring all the intangibles. The team’s 4-year, $44 million man, Stephen Curry, is very slick but seems a bit immature to be a leader. That’s where Landry and Jack come in, and probably Andrew Bogut, who will soon be unleashed. When he can play 30+ minutes a game, the Warriors will be taken very seriously.

The Houston Rockets lucked out by being in a position to acquire James Harden, and then signed him to a 5-year, $80 million contract. That’s not a seismic shift in the league’s balance of power but it could lead to one. Suddenly Jeremy Lin, a terrific playmaker, has someone to make plays with. In Harden’s first game with Houston he scored 37 points, had 12 assists and the Rockets won. In his second game he dropped 45 points on the Hawks and the Rockets won in Atlanta. Lin had 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. Their only loss was in OT at home against Portland. The Rockets have a zippy new backcourt that is going to be tough to stop. Harden and Lin are both not only scorers but playmakers too and that is going to help a solid if unspectacular front line of SF Chandler Parsons and PF Patrick Patterson, who seem here to stay, and C Omar Osik, a rebounding fool. The Houston Rockets, suddenly relevant?

This just in: The Lakers found a team they could beat (the Detroit Pistons), 108-79.  Laker fans will find no catharsis in this home win, I mean the Rockets already went to Detroit and beat the Pistons. The Dream Team, er, Lakers led 34-13 after the first quarter. Laker fans are waiting for their team to beat a pretty good team. Utah, who they’ll play on Wednesday, and the Warriors (Friday), qualify.  Also today (Sunday) the Thunder lost at home to the Hawks. Kevin Martin scored 28 points in 29 minutes filling Harden’s role but it wasn’t enough. Martin can score as well as Harden or anyone but he isn’t the playmaker Harden is. Nor does he have that same edge.

Tags: Caron Butler Chris Paul Dwight Howard Golden State Warriors Houston Rockets Memphis Grizzlies Los Angeles Clippers Los Angeles Lakers San Antonio Spurs Steve Nash

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