Before the Lakers take the STAPLES Center floor to open the 2010-11 regular season against Houston, the nine remaining players from last season’s championship-winning roster will line up one by one to receive their rings. Special to all, of course, even those exceptional two (Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher) who already have four rings apiece in their closets.
But it’s the first ring for Ron Artest, a driving force throughout his first season as a Laker after coming over from Houston as a free agent in a virtual trade for Trevor Ariza. Artest chose to stay in the locker room on Ring Night 2009 while Bryant, Lamar Odom and others claimed their championship rings last October, trying to envision himself in that role in 2010. Funny how things work out.
“I’m real happy because Ron gets to experience it this time,” said Odom. “I’ve known him for a long time, and people in our basketball family back in New York … there are a lot of proud people.”
Ironically, Artest will be auctioning off his ring in part to raise money for children’s mental health initiatives, but Derek Fisher said on Monday that he can see an additional motivation to Artest’s generous nature. In giving away the ring he worked so hard for, perhaps Artest can draw that much more motivation towards earning another one?
But all that, according to Phil Jackson and Artest himself, should have nothing to do with how the Lakers perform on the basketball floor against the Rockets. After collecting pieces of jewelry so large from NBA Commissioner David Stern that making layups would be difficult, it’s up to the defending champs to clear the mechanism.
“It’s different than the emotions of playing the game,” Jackson explained after the team’s final preseason practice. “It’s about thinking about last year and the teammates that you had on that team, about the effort that went into winning that championship.
“You have to divorce yourself from it after that’s done. The banner is raised, the rings are in your hand and you have to go out and play, you have to bring that (separate) intensity to it.”
Jackson went on to detail why the Lakers have essentially been preparing for two different teams coached by Rick Adelman, depending on whether or not Yao Ming is on the floor. Much publicized throughout training camp has been the 24-minute limit the Rockets have placed on Yao’s services, and the Chinese center’s affect on an opponent’s game plan.
“With Yao on the floor, you know that they’re going to feed the ball to him (due to) how good a player he is and how great a target he is to catch the ball in the lane,” Jackson said. “When he’s out of the ball game, they play a very fluid, high-post game in which a lot of things happen where there is very little support defensively.”
Expected to start alongside Yao up front are Luis Scola and Shane Battier, with a backcourt made up of high-volume shooters Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks. Key potential contributors off a bench full of mid-level talents searching for playing time include Courtney Lee, Kyle Lowry, Chuck Hayes, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Jared Jeffries. Hayes missed Houston’s last two games with a sprained ankle but is ready to play, as is Lowry (back spasms).
The Lakers come in nearly as healthy, with only Andrew Bynum (knee) and Luke Walton (hamstring) out of the lineup, while Lamar Odom (thumb, nose, back) and Theo Ratliff returned to practice on Monday.
“I’m all right,” said Odom, who was banged up in L.A.’s back-to-back wins over Golden State last week. “I’m ready to play, just ready to go out there. We’ve practiced enough … we’re ready to compete.”
Odom will start alongside Pau Gasol and Ron Artest in the front court with Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher at the guards. Bryant, who spent the preseason experimenting with his legs on offense (i.e. 28.2 percent from the field), told Jackson that he’s OK to play more than 30 minutes against Houston, and has put himself under no Ming-like limitations.
The defensive matchups for both teams will be interesting to watch: Fisher and backup Steve Blake will attempt to stay in front of one of the league’s quickest players in Brooks, who averaged 23 points in four games against L.A. last season (three of them losses) and took an average of nine three-pointers a contest. Artest will likely have to chase Martin around with Bryant sticking to Battier, though each could cross-match. Odom will deal with Scola’s variety of post moves, while Gasol faces one of the few players in the NBA with an actual height advantage on him.
On the other end, Artest is likely to drag Martin beneath the basket to utilize a major strength advantage, while Odom and Gasol can draw Scola and Yao out to the perimeter and utilize respective quickness advantages. Bryant savors the chance to go at defensive specialist Battier — against whom he averaged 28.3 points in four 2008-09 wins and 24.5 points in 2009-10 — but is still rounding into form, while Fisher has no problem getting his shot off against the 6-0 Brooks.
When opening tip comes at just after 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, those will be the things about which Phil Jackson hopes his team is thinking, not their shiny new rings.