The Lakers added a diamond-encrusted bookend to last season’s playoff run, receiving their glitzy championship rings and unveiling a new celebratory banner in front of a keyed-up Staples Center crowd.
Putting the finishing touches on the Clippers proved to be much more difficult.
The Lakers had habitually bullied their down-the-hall neighbors the last two seasons, winning eight consecutive games against them by an average of 22 points.
Then came Tuesday, where a pregame testimony to success turned into a reminder that this was an entirely new season.
The Lakers eventually won, 99-92, in front of fans whose energy dropped dramatically after the opening festivities, only to recover in the fourth quarter when the Lakers began to look like, well, the Lakers.
The home team, after leading by 15, led by only one going into the fourth quarter, but Kobe Bryant had 33 points, Andrew Bynum had 26 points and 13 rebounds, and the Lakers are now 1-0 in 2009-10, even if the victory didn’t have the dominant feel of their 117-79 laugher over the Clippers almost exactly a year ago.
The Lakers got to reminisce about their recent past, but as Lakers Coach Phil Jackson warned ahead of time, “Someone on the other end of the floor wants to beat the pumpkin out of you.”
The Clippers were almost up to the task, but Lakers fans were the ones who scrambled to beat traffic, filing out of the arena with 2:57 to play and the Lakers ahead, 94-81.
Lamar Odom had eight of his 16 points in the final quarter, including a three-point basket that provided an 89-79 lead and seemed to finish off the Clippers, who got 18 points and 16 rebounds from Chris Kaman and 21 points from Eric Gordon.
Both teams were short-handed, the Lakers without Pau Gasol (strained right hamstring) and the Clippers without touted rookie Blake Griffin (stress fracture, left kneecap).
Bynum played despite missing the last two exhibition games because of a sore shoulder. He drew rare praise beforehand from Jackson, who always seems to want more from his 22-year-old center.
“It’s very hard to keep Andrew away from the basket,” Jackson said. “That’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. Andrew’s developed a lot of moves on his own and he has a desire to score, so he’s going to score points.”
Jackson turned out to be right. Bynum made nine of 15 shots and eight of 10 free-throw attempts.
“I was super hyped up,” Bynum said. “I put a lot of work in the summer to get to the level I’m at physically. Barring injuries, I should be able to maintain this level of play.”
As for the ceremony, the Lakers matched the present with the past by bringing in one player from their each of their previous championship teams in Los Angeles. Jerry West, James Worthy, Magic Johnson, Norm Nixon, Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes, A.C. Green, Rick Fox and Robert Horry lined up to congratulate each player.
Johnson, who owns almost 5% of the Lakers, took the microphone at center court.
“We have the greatest coach in Phil Jackson, we have the greatest player in Kobe Bryant and last but not least . . . without this man, we would not have won all the championships that we have won,” Johnson said.
He then called Jerry Buss “the greatest owner in all of sports.”
Buss stood up in his luxury box behind the Lakers’ bench and triumphantly raised his arms.
As the players received their rings, the loudest ovation from fans was for Bryant, predictably, though Derek Fisher also received plenty of attention.
“Tonight is such a special night for our team, our coaches, our front office, our ownership,” said Fisher, who had two memorable three-point shots to help the Lakers take a dominant lead over Orlando in last season’s NBA Finals.
After the players got their rings, a black curtain was slowly pulled down to reveal the new championship banner on the Staples Center wall.
Longtime Lakers consultant Tex Winter received his ring between the third and fourth quarters, leading to another ovation from Lakers fans. Winter, 87, suffered a stroke while attending a college-basketball reunion in April. He has been rehabilitating in Oregon.
“I know it’s been a real difficult three, four, five months....” Jackson said. “We’re happy Tex could make it down.”
The championship ring, shaped subtly like Staples Center, has 2.85 karats in diamonds and is worth at least $10,000. Each player had an image of his face inscribed on the side of his ring, the first time such a feature had been included on NBA championship rings. Fourteen diamonds ringed a white-gold image of the Larry O’Brien championship trophy that represented the franchise’s 15th championship.
Whether the Lakers win a 16th title won’t be known until June. A lot can, and will, happen between now and then.