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Butler Steps Up for Lakers

Times Staff Writer

Caron Butler limped to his locker, clutching a small plastic bag filled with confirmation of a busy night.

There were three rolls of athletic tape, two rolls of pre-wrap and one satisfied customer with zero complaints despite sustaining a sprained ankle.

In the ever-evolving search to find capable scorers to complement Kobe Bryant, Butler stepped out from behind the curtain Sunday with 22 points on 10-for-14 shooting in the Lakers’ 106-90 victory over the Atlanta Hawks before 18,997 at Staples Center.

Butler’s only misstep -- he landed on the foot of Hawk guard Royal Ivey while jumping for a rebound -- led to a moderate sprain, but he stuck around long enough to make sure the Lakers avoided their first 1-3 start since 1995.

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“I thought it was a great, great game for him,” Laker Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "[He had] energy and really nice rotation on his shots from the corner and then just attacking that basket. He’s a developing player and that was a great step in the right direction.”

Bryant scored 24 points on six-for-12 shooting and had six assists on a night when six Lakers had more than 10 points. Chris Mihm, who scored a career-high 23 in the opener against Denver, had 19 points and 10 rebounds Sunday after two below-average games.

But the story was Butler, who began the evening by arriving three hours before tip-off and setting up shop at the basket across from where Bryant shoots before games. As Bryant worked on his one-on-one post moves with an assistant coach, Butler shot for almost half an hour from the arc, from the baseline, from the elbow.

“I had to find rhythm,” said Butler, who had averaged 8.7 points while shooting 39.1%. “I had to get out there early. I try to follow the leader, Kobe. I told him I was coming out and he said that was a good idea. I think I’ll do it the rest of my career.”

Two weeks ago, Butler sustained a partially torn tendon in his right pinkie finger and was supposed to wear a splint for four to six weeks. That lasted all of three minutes in the Lakers’ next exhibition game, when Butler ditched the splint and scored 18 points in the first quarter against Seattle. Though it still hurts, he has gone splint-free on his shooting hand since then.

“I guess I’m going to have a bent little pinkie,” he said Sunday, shrugging.

Thinking big-picture, the victory was important for the Lakers, who set three records for offensive futility in an embarrassing loss to Utah Wednesday and followed it up with a home loss to San Antonio.

At the risk of ruining the fun, however, Sunday’s opponent went 1-7 in exhibition play and is now 0-3 in games that count. Essentially a two-man operation, the Hawks extract 40 minutes a game from Antoine Walker and Al Harrington, and hope to be close in the game’s final minutes.

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They were out of luck by halftime.

Butler had made six of seven shots for 14 points to help stake the Lakers to a 59-45 advantage.

The only momentum-stopper came when Butler crumpled to the floor and grabbed his left ankle after coming down on Ivey’s foot with 8:16 left to play. The Lakers called a 20-second timeout. Butler stayed in the game. X-rays afterward were negative.

“It’s sore right now,” Butler said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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The Lakers displayed the most balanced scoring they’ve had this season, showing selfless, and successful, play throughout the game.

There was Lamar Odom feeding Butler with a behind-the-back pass through the key for an easy two. There was Bryant finding Butler on a three-on-two break for another easy score. There were 21 assists, 14 more than they had in setting a Laker low against Utah.

“We’re sharing the ball,” said Odom, who had 11 points and 11 rebounds. “Sometimes you get caught up playing isolation one-on-one basketball like we did in Utah. That’s easy to defend. It’s harder when the ball is touching everyone’s fingertips.”


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