LOS ANGELES -- An excited, capacity crowd anxiously awaited the final chance to celebrate last season's NBA Championship with its beloved Lakers. The team held a ring ceremony, before unveiling their 15th championship banner, which was hanging behind a black curtain high on the back wall of the Staples Center.
It was an exciting start to the night, but the excitement ended there, as the quality of the opening night opponent (or lack thereof) made it easy on the defending champs and a yawner for those in attendance. The result was a lackluster, comfortable 99-92 win for the Lakers in their first game of the 2009-10 NBA season.
The Lakers' opening-night opponents, the Clippers, had the option of watching the ring ceremony on the court, but chose instead to use the time a bit more productively.
"Stretching," Dunleavy said, when asked what the team would be doing. "Yoga."
One can't fault him for making that decision, considering the fact that this Clippers team is about as far away from the goal of a title as possible. What Dunleavy and his players missed was a nice (if not overly emotional) ceremony in which the home team trotted out "legends" of previous championship seasons. Some of the luminaries included Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Jerry West, and Robert Horry -- who received as loud of a cheer as anyone, thanks to his heroics with the club earlier this decade.
One by one, team personnel, then the coaches, and finally the players were introduced, each stepping forward to receive their ring, shake David Stern's hand and make his way down the procession. Kobe Bryant was, of course, the final player introduced, and while there weren't any tears, his ear-to-ear smile was as big as any that you'll ever see him flash.
Once the festivities completed, there was the formality of playing the actual game, which, with Blake Griffin's debut being delayed for at least six weeks due to a knee injury, held little intrigue.
The Lakers led by 10 after one quarter, thanks to a quick start by Bryant, who had 13 points on nine field goal attempts in the period. The newest member of the Lakers' starting lineup, Ron Artest, didn't do much that showed up in the box score early, but he was very active, playing the role of "new guy who is trying his best not to screw things up."
The home team pushed its lead to 15 points early in the second, before the lineup of D.J. Mbenga, Josh Powell, Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar, and Shannon Brown allowed the Clippers to trim it to three halfway through the period. But at that point, the starters were promptly re-inserted and order was restored, with the Lakers regaining a double-digit lead at the break.
The game didn't reach epic blowout proportions at any point in the second half, and in fact, the Clippers trimmed the lead down to one to end the third quarter. But even then, you never got the feeling that this game's ultimate result was ever in doubt, and Lamar Odom's three-pointer with just over six and a half minutes remaining put the Lakers back up by 10.
Bryant gave the Lakers a 13-point lead with an "and-1" a minute or so later, then dished to Artest for a fast break bucket on the next possession, and the game was officially in the refrigerator from that moment on.
Inside the Staples Center, once the opening ceremonies had concluded, it was as dead as a Sunday night game in late December when the Lakers are hosting one of the league's worst teams. In that scenario, one knows the Lakers are going to win, but it's going to be a lackluster and uninspired effort, and that's pretty much what occurred Tuesday night.
But overall, it was a great start to the season, and the fans got what they came here to see: the Lakers picked up their rings, raised their banner, and picked up an opening night victory. And for a team beginning that long, long journey back to the top of the NBA mountain, that's all anyone could ask for.