Lakers – Barcelona Running Diary

Welcome to STAPLES Center.

Early-arriving fans were privy to Saturday evening’s first game between the L.A. Clippers and the Toronto Clippers, but it’s the 7:30 p.m. tipoff for which most are here. Those in yellow warmups – not to mention our guests from Barcelona – ran onto the hardwood for the first time in a very highly-anticipated season about 20 minutes prior to the tipoff, producing the kind of roar in the preseason that many NBA cities don’t hear more than a couple of times throughout the year.

This game also marks the first of five in seven days for a Lakers’ squad intent upon figuring out its rotations, in deciding whose talents best fit which specific roles on the floor. Before the game, head coach Phil Jackson was asked for the 1,384th time this preseason about his lineup, and he answered as he had previously: “I don’t know.” Of course, pregame media sessions at this stage of the season are in part to update those media that weren’t able to attend practices due to other commitments (like the Dodgers), so we didn’t learn anything new.

As for tonight’s game, the major point of interest will be whether L.A. is able to force its style upon Regal F.C. Barcelona, or vice versa. Barcelona likes to operate out of the high pick and roll, forcing defenders out of the paint to challenge them, and features a slew of smooth perimeter shooters that punish any overzealous squads. The more athletic and talented Lakers are also bigger, and generally better attacking the basket both from the perimeter and from the paint. I’ll try to keep an eye on whose style we see the most, but keep this in mind: no NBA team has ever lost to an international squad on U.S. soil.

- Quick note: Wanted to mention a cool European tradition we saw before the game: the gift exchange. Members of F.C.’s squad met each individual Laker with a gift at midcourt, and I’m going with a blanket or scarf. I’ll find out after the game if it’s something much nicer…

First Quarter
It took L.A. all of three seconds to score its first hoop, when Pau Gasol (from both the city and club of Barcelona) corralled the opening tip before finding Vladimir Radmanovic for an easy layup. F.C.’s answer came from Lubos Barton, a Czech forward who released a silky three that found twine. Barton’s joined by former Memphis guard Juan Carlos Navarro, former NBA point guard and Seton Hall star Andre Barrett, Australian center David Anderson and Spanish center Fran Vazquez (the 11th overall pick in 2005 by Orlando). Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum joined V-Rad and Gasol in Phil’s five.

Five quick points from Navarro were countered by a Bynum bucket, a Kobe free throw and a Gasol and-1 for an early 8-8 tie, followed by L.A.’s first run of the evening. Kobe scored five straight – including his first preseason three – and Bynum connected again from close to make it 15-8.

Our first Lamar Odom sighting came at the 5:16 mark, in for Bynum, who immediately received some coaching from assistant Kurt Rambis. Odom promptly tossed a beautiful pass to Vlad-Rad for a 17-13 Lakers lead. Barcelona has taken one three a minute thus far, coming mostly out of that high pick and roll. I can say with certainty that no NBA team plays like this, but it’s a nice test for the Lakers (F.C.’s hit 4-of-8, by the way).

- Huge alley-oop from Kobe to Vlad at the 2:53 mark. Gorgeous. YouTube it.
- Bigger alley-oop from Lamar to Pau at the 2:12 mark. Money. In unrelated news, there are no major celebrity sightings by my eye to this point, though I’m sure at least some B- and C-listers are here. I haven’t really made a loop, sticking to the press room (beef/chicken tacos and ice cream, thanks) and my seat above the Laker broadcasters above midcourt. But can I request a C-lister: “Real World” Johnny Bananas? I’d like to write an investigative feature on why he hates women so much.

The biggest reason L.A. jumped out to a 29-19 lead after one? Lamar Odom, who needed just five minutes to toss three assists, grab three boards, score two points and generally exert himself as the best player on the floor. On the same token, Bynum and Gasol looked formidable together defensively to start the game … There’s a reason Barca took so many perimeter jumpers, after all.

Gasol led the way with nine points to complement four boards, while Kobe added eight points and two assists. The Spanish guests struggled to score after JC Navarro left the game, but Odom kept the Lakers going throughout the period. Very impressive, Lamar.

Stat of the quarter: L.A. outscored F.C. 20-2 in the paint. Repeat, 20-2. That stat suggests that the Lakers are controlling tempo, just a bit.

Second Quarter
Jackson went with a bench unit of Odom, Farmar, Ariza, Walton and Mihm to start the period, while F.C. countered with no player most Lakers fans would have heard of. A few of the names (Alex Hernandez, Xavi Rey) seem ideal for Spanish soap operas on Telemundo, however. Anyways, L.A.’s second unit gave the visitors fits in transition in a 9-0 run to start the period, culminating with a Farmar-to-Ariza alley-oop (fourth of the night already).

- Sidenote: Sasha Vujacic told me before the game that he’s played with F.C.’s Jaka Lakovic at Slovenian National Team camp, though Lakovic is several years older. I mention this because my buddy just texted me that I look like him, which is probably not at all true (though he just dropped a three, which now pleases me). Random thought I forgot to mention: Josh Powell was listening to Young Geezy in the locker room prior to the game, but he also likes to mellow out to old school R&B on occasion. Sun Yue, he of the constant smile on his face and pleasant demeanor, simply said he hopes to sneak onto the court tonight.

Another three from my guy Lakovic narrowed L.A.’s lead to 41-30 after the 14-time NBA champs had jumped to a 21-point advantage, but more importantly, Sun’s in the game. Unfortunately, Sun quickly turned the ball over, resulting in another Lakovic (eight points now) bucket. Next came a triple from JC Navarro, showing clearly that F.C.’s A-team is up to par with L.A.’s third team.

Hold on … Another triple from Lakovic. I’m starting to appreciate my buddy comparing him to me. Respect. That’s a 8-0 run, answered by Bryant’s 17-footer at the 3:00 mark. Keep in mind that Phil Jackson really doesn’t care about the result of this game, which is why Coby Karl, CJ Giles and Sun are in the game.

Ty just told me that Deron Williams had to be wheelchaired out of the Utah locker room after hurting his ankle in a preseason game in Chicago. We’re at the point now where any injury could mean missed time in the regular season. Random league question: Have you seen Gregg Popovich’s freaking hair/beard?

So, I mentioned how Lakovic and JC Navarro brought Barca all the way back into the action with 28 combined points … Apparently that annoyed Bryant, who decided to give the Lakers a cushion at halftime by going nuts for two minutes with eight points. He can score whenever he wants to. Literally. Yes, yes, you know that already – but it’s still quite impressive. He’s to scoring what Morton’s is to cooking steak, and Jay-Z is to free-styling. That’s an 8-0 Kobe run for a 53-44 lead at the break.

Third Quarter
Vlad-Rad’s been “dunking like crazy in the preseason,” Ty correctly pointed out after a fierce tomahawk on the fastbreak. Apparently the rim will bear the brunt of the punishment from any barbs about Vlad’s 2008 postseason. It’s obvious to all here that L.A.’s starters are destroying Barcelona near the rim, with Gasol and Bynum taking turns dropping in layups near the rim, in opening up a 70-56 lead.

I like when dance teams do the sections thing. What I mean is, when they are all in one line but like, split into thirds and the first third does a move, then the second does the same one, then the third completes it before sending it back. Know what I mean? The Laker Girls do.

Ty and I just had a little fantasy pow-wow about this Lakers squad. Our first assertion is that Pau Gasol is going to be a monster this season, because contrary to what some national fantasy writers have speculated, we don’t think he’s really losing any minutes or production to Bynum. He is so good at shooting, passing, rebounding and blocking shots, there’s no way the stat sheet doesn’t fill up when he’s on the floor. In 18 minutes tonight, he has 13 points on 6-of-11, three assists, five boards, and a block without a turnover. Ty agreed on all of these points. We then discussed where Kobe should go in the draft (Ty says one, I say three), what Odom’s capable of and so on. It was fun, meaning we’re going to do a podcast about it this week. P.S. Kobe has 28 points in 27 minutes on 10-of-14 and 6-of-7 from the line, plus six steals.

Barcelona put in a good stretch, but just doesn’t have the horses up front to compete with the Lakers, who aren’t allowing F.C.’s high pick and roll or perimeter shooting to pose a serious threat. With Odom in the game, what do we see but another alley-oop, this time to Bynum, which Ty tells me happened about three times a game last season. That’s four dimes, five boards and five points for Odom in 13 minutes, without a turnover.

The second unit is again murdering the Spanish side, most recently in the form of D.J. Mbenga’s hammer dunk, helping to push the Lakers to a 15-point lead heading into the final quarter. Fairness in conversation act: Mbenga set an NBA preseason record by taking eight steps without a dribble on the possession after his dunk. L.A.’s bench appreciated the effort. I’m going to tell D.J. I said that because if he hears it from someone else. He’s not small.

Little known fact: Jordan Farmar was the team’s leading scorer heading into this game with 11.7 per contest on 52 percent shooting, followed by 10.0 each from Pau and Bynum. Thanks Ty. As I type, Farmar notched his fourth steal, third of the second half and dimed to Ariza for a hammer dunk.

My second-favorite Slovenian player, Lakovic, has 13 points in 15 minutes, nearly matching the production per minute of Bryant. Barcelona has its small unit featuring Lako and JC Navarro that climbed back into the game in the second quarter, though Jackson’s sticking with his second group (Farmar, Odom, Ariza, Walton and Mbenga) for now in a 91-78 game.

I should have taken the over on 25 threes attempted by F.C., because they’ve already hucked up 30 (yup, 30) triples. Navarro just made a gorgeous leaner that most NBA players don’t attempt, because it was one-handed from about 17-feet. Very pretty. He’s nice with his 25 points – JCN has to be a top-5 international player.

Admittedly, this is one of those “little things” that doesn’t necessarily affect the outcome of a game, but newly-subbed Brandon Heath just made the extra effort to contest a F.C. jumper off the high screen and roll, causing Lakovic to miss badly for the first time tonight. Nice to see that … Now, I’m feeling a Sun Yue 360-jam, and not a normal one but an NBA JAM (Sega) version from the free-throw line while holding turbo. Would that incite a riot? I think I might sprint onto the floor and tackle him like Messi’s Argentinean teammates did to him after scoring a goal last World Cup.

OK. For the record, I’m a Sun fan. Can’t lie. But I also can’t lie that he’s had a very, very tough couple of minutes. So, the opposite of him throwing down a nasty dunk just happened, and it’s my fault. Capitalizing is JC Navarro, he of a game-high 31 points, making the Laker lead just four. Thankfully for the home team, Chris Mihm hooked up a slick, guard-like and-1 with 33.8 to go to build the lead back to seven. We’re safe here. That’s 10 points and six boards in 10 minutes for Mihm, who looks quite healthy.

While it was a pleasure to watch the visiting Barcelona squad, Lakers fans surely got a taste of some serious talent that will next be tested Sunday evening by the Raptors.

Check back tomorrow for video highlights from the locker room and more reaction from Saturday’s 108-104 victory.