The present-day Lakers weren’t looking so great against the Houston Rockets, and then fate messed with their future.
Rookie Julius Randle sustained a broken tibia in his right leg and was carted off on a stretcher after a collision with two Rockets players in the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ 108-90 loss in their season opener Tuesday.
Randle was driving past Rockets forward Donatas Motiejunas when he lost his balance and ran into Motiejunas and center Tarik Black.
His entire right leg was in an air cast as teammates helped load him onto the stretcher at Staples Center.
Randle, the seventh overall pick in the draft, is expected to have surgery as early as Wednesday and will probably miss the entire season. He had two points on one-for-three shooting in 13 minutes when he left the game.
“I just told him, ‘Keep your spirits up,’” the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant said, adding that an injury like that would be hard enough to stomach for a veteran, let alone a 19-year-old like Randle.
Randle came into the NBA with some mild injury questions after having surgery on his right foot almost two years ago to repair a broken bone. He was told in July, however, he would not need to have a screw replaced or removed from the foot.
Randle backed up veteran Carlos Boozer in the game and was expected to be a rotation player this season.
“We’ll help him through this,” Bryant said. “He’ll come back a better basketball player. That’s the goal, is to try to find the silver lining.”
Amid all the talk of Bryant’s age and injuries before Tuesday’s game, something was seriously omitted — analyzing the rest of the Lakers.
Bryant had 19 points and two assists in 30 minutes, only an OK start for him and not nearly enough to offset Houston. His shooting was askew (six for 17) and he struggled at times defensively.
Boozer was the only other Lakers starter in double figures, scoring 17 on seven-for-13 shooting. Jeremy Lin had a rough debut, totaling seven points on one-for-five shooting, with six assists. Jordan Hill and Wesley Johnson, the other two starters, each had seven points.
Before the game, Bryant hugged James Harden and said hi to ex-teammate Trevor Ariza but didn’t even look in Dwight Howard’s direction.
Howard — who famously rejected the Lakers in free agency, signing with the Rockets before last season — picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter and didn’t have much impact beyond 13 points and 11 rebounds. He still has that nagging free-throw problem, missing nine of 16.
Lakers fans stuck it to him from the start, predictably booing him during pregame introductions and also getting really fired up when Howard took a defensive rebound in the fourth quarter and swung his elbows as Bryant pestered him.
Howard pointed at Bryant and yelled at him as referees moved quickly to separate them. Bryant then appeared to say “soft” to Howard.
Bryant was called for a personal foul, Howard was called for a flagrant and they each picked up a technical foul. The Lakers trailed at the time, 99-74.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Bryant said. “Elbows are part of the game. Trash-talking is part of the game. I don’t know where the NBA became so sensitive.”
Bryant, though, said he didn’t dislike Howard despite their failed season together.
“He’s a teddy bear,” he said. “You can’t help but like him. I really mean that. He’s a really nice kid. But when you’re competing and you have a goal in mind . . . certain times we don’t see eye to eye.”
Byron Scott was coaching his first game for the Lakers, a story on any other day if Bryant wasn’t coming back from a six-game 2013-14 season and Randle hadn’t gotten hurt.
And there’s nothing but difficulty ahead for Scott’s team, which plays at Phoenix on Wednesday, hosts the Clippers on Friday and is at Golden State on Saturday. Then the Lakers play Phoenix again next Tuesday at Staples Center.
Follow Mike Bresnahan on Twitter @Mike_Bresnahan