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Lakers

Luke Walton’s young Lakers show a lot of energy in opening victory

After his first official win as a head coach in his first game leading the Lakers, Luke Walton hesitated when asked if the win felt good. 

“Ummm,” Walton began after the 120-114 victory over the Houston Rockets at Staples Center, his mind already racing to the things he wanted to see corrected. 

Then he conceded. “It feels good,” Walton said. “It feels really good. The guys really fought tonight. 

“A big part of what we’re trying to do here is develop this identity, this culture, we keep using the word, and learning how to win games is part of figuring out who we are, and it’s a skill at this level. 

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“We did some things that could have cost us at the end of the game tonight. We can learn from that, and the fact that we still got the win feels really good.”

This is a team that is rebuilding, that simply wants to see development in its young core. But in their season opener, that future to which they’re building seemed just a little bit closer. They christened their new era with the same kind of positivity Walton has preached since his arrival. 

Jordan Clarkson finished with a team-high 25 points, 23 in the second half.

“This is great to start the new year like this,” Clarkson said. “You think of those last two years that we played. It just feels great.”

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The Lakers only won 38 games in those last two years, going 21-61 in the 2014-15 season and then 17-65. Both records marked franchise lows at the time. Walton’s mission upon taking over as head coach this year was to erase any losing culture that remained as the Lakers worked on their self-proclaimed rebuild. 

His task began in earnest Wednesday night. 

Although Walton went 39-4 as an interim head coach for the Golden State Warriors last season, none of those wins counted toward his record as a head coach. He coached his official debut in front of his family — his father, Hall of Famer Bill Walton, his mother Susie and his brothers among them. 

He wanted effort above all else, he also wanted solid defense and to limit fouls. He got part of that. 

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The Lakers dived for loose balls, chased down rebounds and clawed their way to the win. They also sent Rockets point guard James Harden to the foul line constantly and struggled to stop him otherwise. Harden finished with 34 points and 17 assists and shot 16 free throws. 

“I keep stressing defense, but our offense is definitely looking better than our defense,” Walton said, laughing. “Honestly, we put an emphasis on sharing the ball, just hitting the next open guy and not standing.”

Their offense worked right from the start. Featuring a starting lineup of point guard D’Angelo Russell, shooting guard Nick Young, center Timofey Mozgov, small forward Luol Deng and power forward Julius Randle, the Lakers beat the Rockets at their own game in the first quarter. 

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At halftime the Lakers trailed by eight. Then Clarkson took over. 

Clarkson didn’t start and played only seven minutes in the first half. 

“He didn’t pout, he didn’t complain,” Walton said. “When he got his minutes in the second half, he was probably the best player on the floor for us.”

It ended with the kind of hustle and grit Walton wanted most. 

With less than a minute to go, Russell and Young dove for the ball to wrest it away from James Harden and the crowd at Staples Center stood up to honor the effort. At the other end, with what seemed like all 18,997 fans standing, piqued in anticipation, Julius Randle scored to put the Lakers up 120-114 with 45.2 seconds remaining in the game.

The crowd erupted, celebrating what’s to come. 

tania.ganguli@latimes.com

Twitter: @taniaganguli

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