There were so many people standing and taking photos with their phones, I couldn’t see the Lakers warming up.
There were so many people cheering the procession of All-Stars hopping and dancing on to the floor, I couldn’t hear the Lakers introductions.
But then Tuesday night’s opening game against the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center began, and there was no hiding behind the hype.
The great team is a confused team. The collection of All-Stars is all over the map. The Princeton offense is slower than ivy. The Brown defense is red-faced.
The team supposedly sprinting for the NBA Finals began its season wading through a nightmare Tuesday in a 99-91 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
We all knew that the integrating of the new players and system would be a process. But who knew that process would begin with such a Vaudevillian splat?
When the game began, the arena was blanketed in the unreal feeling of seeing Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in Lakers uniforms. By the time it ended, it was unreal to have seen them both so uncomfortable.
Nash had four assists and missed six of nine shots. Howard fouled out after making just three of 14 free throws.
The Lakers’ starting lineup had 33 combined All-Star selections, the Mavericks had six, yet the Lakers fell behind at halftime and never made a serious run.
The most energy they showed came later, from Howard, as he stood in front of his locker acting amazed that anybody would be worried.
“Embarrassed? I’ve played home openers where we’ve lost by 30 points . . . yeah, really,” he said, adding, “I’m sure everyone in Laker nation wants us to win every game, but it takes time.”
Armed with the highest hopes in recent Lakers history, Staples Center fans gave their team all of three quarters Tuesday before they started booing.
Early in the fourth quarter, fans who had given huge ovations for Nash and Howard were chanting for the return to the game of Kobe Bryant.
Midway through the fourth quarter, one brave fan stood and shouted what many fans were surely thinking — she called for the firing of Mike Brown.
By the time the game ended, sometime after tiny Rodrigue Beaubois had crawled behind Howard for an offensive rebound and basket, many of the fans had angrily turned their backs and walked away.
That clutter of slumped gold jerseys on the floor was a team that had committed 14 turnovers, made just 39% of its free throws — welcome Superman! — and hit just three of 13 three-point attempts.
And, oh yeah, the Lakers bench was outscored by the Mavericks bench, 37-17.
The loss has certain mitigating factors. The Lakers starters had played together for only one preseason game. Howard is still recovering from April back surgery. Bryant missed the previous five practices with a foot injury.
But then the loss also illuminated certain real fears. What if this new Princeton offense — suggested by Bryant — isn’t right for this team? With a great point guard like Nash, why not switch to a simple pick-and-roll offense? Heck, why not just go back to the triangle?
“You have to be in the right spots to run the offense the right way, but we’ll get it,” said Howard “We have confidence in each other, in our coaches and the offense that they’re running.”
The fact that he referred to the offense as something, “they’re” running may show that the players haven’t completely invested in something being preached by the coaches. They sure didn’t act like it Tuesday, when what was supposed to be a celebration was truly a mess.
Bryant would scream for players to go in one direction and they would run the other way. Howard would receive ally-oop passes while standing flat-footed. Nash would make great passes to teammates standing in the middle of nothing and going nowhere.
“We have to remember that we have 81 more to play,” Howard said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day..that’s what somebody told me.”
That somebody was obviously not a Lakers fan.
The loss also revealed potential defensive problems, beginning with Nash, who struggled to stop Darren Collison, who scored 17 points while missing just four of his dozen shots. The confusion on defense was displayed late in the game when Shawn Marion drove and dunked past Pau Gasol, who turned to the sidelines with a perplexed shrug while Mike Brown barked back.
Wasn’t this how we left the Lakers last season in Oklahoma City?
“Everybody is going to feed off my energy, I have to do a better job of being more energetic, which will come with time,” said Howard, seemingly referring to his back issues.
Brown agreed with Howard’s assessment, saying, “What I am disappointed in, I thought our multiple effort was not there defensively, at times we looked tired out there.”
With three future Hall of Famers on the floor, the first Lakers shot of the 2012-13 season was taken by . . . Metta World Peace. With a summer’s worth of hype on his shoulders, Howard’s first dunk was . . . missed. Actually, it was surreal even before that, when Nash arrived at Staples Center in a pink sweater while carrying a Louis Vuitton man purse.
Before the game, Brown warned that this process would take time. When he was asked how long, he said, “I don’t know. I hope it will come after Christmas sometime . . . before the All-Star break, we’ll be clicking a little bit. Then we go away from the All-Star break, come back, take another week to figure it out, then take off from there.”
A week after the All-Star break? That would be the end of February, barely a month before the playoffs. For a team this skilled and experienced, that would work.
But Tuesday, that seemed a long way away.
Before the game, Bryant took the microphone at midcourt and exhorted the crowd with, “Let’s get this party started! Enjoy the show.”
Party delayed. The show was a bust.