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Bryant at Center of Win

Times Staff Writer

Kobe Bryant reported for his first day on the new job a few minutes after 4 p.m., making jump shot after jump shot on an otherwise vacant court, long before most of his teammates arrived.

Now the Lakers’ unquestionable No. 1 option, Bryant officially moved beyond sidekick status in his 562nd regular-season game and, at the same time, submitted a possible preview of a newer Bryant, selfless and satisfied, at least for one game.

Bryant had 25 points, seven assists and reason to exhale Tuesday after the Lakers’ 89-78 victory over the Denver Nuggets in a season opener in front of 18,997 at Staples Center.

Before the game, Bryant could look around the locker room and see nine new teammates, a new coach and no Shaquille O’Neal. Afterward, he could look at the stat sheet with a degree of satisfaction.

As the Lakers moved toward a decisive 19-point lead in the second quarter, Bryant and center Chris Mihm combined for 21 points, surprising because Bryant had only two of them.

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Bryant was content to defer to the rest of the team, and Mihm, happy to oblige, was the recipient of Bryant’s goodwill on more than one occasion. Mihm had a career-high 23 points in his first game with the Lakers since being obtained from the Boston Celtics in the Gary Payton trade.

Bryant has thought about this moment since August, when he started calling teammates and convincing them to come to L.A. weeks before training camp officially began.

He was there on the defensive end, rejecting Carmelo Anthony’s teardrop shot in the second quarter. Later, he caught up to Andre Miller on a breakaway and blocked his shot.

“No easy baskets in our house,” Bryant said later, smiling.

Bryant the passer also made numerous appearances. He had the ball and the angle to the basket in a 2-on-1 break in the third quarter but fed Caron Butler instead.

“He was phenomenal,” Laker Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. “Defensively, offensively, energy-wise and being a positive influence, even on the bench. Phenomenal.”

Call it a case of good timing: The Lakers needed a pick-me-up after last season’s sour end had transitioned into an unsettling off-season.

As if the Lakers needed a reminder of what happened in June, their game was delayed more than 20 minutes because the previous game on the national-TV doubleheader, Detroit vs. Houston, went long. A main reason why: The Pistons, who beat the Lakers in five games in the NBA Finals, took part in a lengthy, gaudy ring ceremony in which each player each wore boxing-style championship belts.

The Lakers, for the second time in as many seasons, played their first game at Staples Center without a ring ceremony. They also played without O’Neal, Phil Jackson, Payton, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher and Karl Malone, who may or may not come back if his surgically repaired knee feels up to the task in a month or so.

The loss of O’Neal, for one, was tempered Tuesday by Mihm.

Selected No. 7 overall in the 2000 draft, Mihm had played for six coaches in four seasons, failing to acquire consistency in his game and cohesion with a particular coaching staff.

Mihm had a solid exhibition season with the Lakers and was active under the basket Tuesday, making eight of 16 shots and collecting 12 rebounds.

“I can sleep well tonight,” Mihm said. “I got the question a lot, ‘Was I nervous going into tonight?’ I was, but I was excited too. I plan on bigger and better things out of myself.”

The game was set up as the team of nostalgia taking on the team of the future, but the Lakers were decidedly more active on both ends.

Anthony, the Nuggets’ franchise player at age 20, made only nine of 22 shots and scored 20 points.

The Lakers had 19 fastbreak points, the Nuggets six.

Denver shot only 34.1%.

“The fans, of course they were wondering what they would see when we put ourselves out there,” said Butler, who had 11 points. “They loved it. They saw guys jumping around, flying around. High energy. You’re going to see that the rest of the season.”


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