LOS ANGELES — For the Lakers, seems like old times …
Well, if you squint your eyes just right.
As if still in their days of yore, the Lakers opened their 2013-14 season with an exciting 116-103 victory over a top-flight opponent Tuesday before a jubilant sellout crowd in Staples Center.
Think of it, the Lakers among the ranks of the unbeatens!
Aside from that, it wasn’t anything like their days of yore.
The top-flight opponent, coming off last season’s 4-0 sweep of the season series against the Lakers, was the once-lowly Clippers.
It was a Lakers home game, which you can now tell by looking at the Lakers banners and retired jerseys. At Clippers home games, they now cover the banners up with pictures of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin et al in an attempt to make it seem like their arena, in the absence of any championships or retired jerseys.
Without Kobe Bryant (as the Lakers will probably be for November), with Steve Nash yet to get his legs under him (or no longer Steve Nash), the Lakers starters looked about as expected.
Happily – or astonishingly – the Lakers’ reserves went for 76, count ‘em, 76 points.
To put this in perspective, it was almost three times the 28.5 points last season’s reserves averaged as the NBA’s 28th-ranked bench.
They were led by Xavier Henry, the former Grizzly, Hornet and member of the D-League’s Iowa Energy, who scored 22.
Then came Jordan Farmar of UCLA, the Lakers, Nets and, most recently, Turkey, who had 16 with four rebounds and six assists in 27 minutes.
The other contributors were newcomers Wes Johnson and Shawne Williams and holdovers Jodie Meeks and Jordan Hill from last season’s crummy bench.
Together, they played every minute of the fourth quarter. In tribute to their effort, coach Mike D’Antoni kept his starters seated, even if it was close.
“It’s tough. I’m getting ready to change it, change it, take Jodie out, then he hit that three. I thought at that point they deserved it,” D’Antoni said. “I had Steve [Blake] ready to go in for Jodie before he hit about three threes in a row.
“Steve, thank goodness came back and said, ‘Ah, I’ll hang around here.’”
The season wasn’t supposed to start like this for the Lakers, and is unlikely to go this way much longer.
The Clippers finished 11 games ahead of the Lakers last season before signing no less than Doc Rivers, who is supposed to coach them into the West elite.
Rivers is counting on shoring up their defense, but 116 would have been a lot to give up for last season’s not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Clips.
Until the Clippers actually played a game, Doc, who’s as smooth as minks in oil, had been enjoying his new platform after his great, grinding seasons in Boston, each harder than the one before.
Tuesday’s pregame media conference was highlighted by a guy asking Rivers, “What’s the difference in trying to develop a culture in Boston where there’s a winning tradition and here, where there’s … there’s …”
“Where there’s not,” said Doc, finishing the guy’s sentence. “It’s OK. You can say it. We’ve decided not to run from the truth, really.
“You’re right. It’s different. You don’t have the Bill Russells to call to talk to the team. We don’t have that history. We have to forge our own.”
Actually, Michael Olowokandi is probably available.
The Clippers didn’t forge a lot of new history Tuesday. It was more like Clippers history, pre-Doc and Chris Paul.
But the season is young. It must be if the Lakers are unbeaten, a distinction they may lose Wednesday night in Oakland when they will be even bigger underdogs to the improved Warriors, who also finished ahead of them last season.
Nor will it get any easier for them anytime soon.
If the Lakers are soft-pedaling it for all they’re worth, Bryant seems to have suffered a setback and is now running on a zero-gravity treadmill instead of a basketball court. Having projected he could play three weeks after he starts to run hard – on a floor with normal gravity – it’s looking more and more like December … the Lakers hope.
Nash suffered several minor injuries in the preseason, enough that he doesn’t look like the Nash who penetrated at will and lived in the lane.
The Lakers are talking about sitting him out in the second half of back-to-backs.
Of course, Nash played only 21 minutes, scoring three points with five assists, so maybe this can count as his night off.
“We have a whole plane ride [to Oakland] to figure that out,” said D’Antoni.
Hey, when you’ve seen the horrors D’Antoni has since
being put in front of a firing squad getting the Laker job …
You arrive in early November with Nash out until Christmas.
When he returns, you learn to your astonishment that Dwight Howard can’t – or doesn’t much care – to run a pick-and-roll with Nash, one of the game’s masters at it.
By then you are learning Howard has a lot of problems in Lakerdom, starting with Bryant. That became a prelude to Howard’s exit last spring, after asking GM Mitch Kupchak if they plan to amnesty Bryant.
So, improbable as this game was, challenged as the Lakers are, it’s better than last season.
“Chemistry means a lot,” said D’Antoni, his way of contrasting this season without Howard to last season with him. “We have good guys. They’re coachable and they want to win and when you do that, you have a chance to win. You don’t have one guy who has to be the star.
“Tonight you could feel the energy. You could feel everybody rooting for everybody. It was a lot different from last season. Last season was cold.”
This season is a laugh riot, so far.
“I think Jordan Farmar needs to sit out every other game,” said D’Antoni. “He’s played too many minutes.”
Hang onto that sense of humor, Lakers Nation. You’ll need it.
Hall of Fame writer Mark Heisler is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops. Follow him on Twitter.