- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The culture in the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room dictates that you are expected to play hurt.
During last year's playoffs, when Kobe Bryant was dragging his bum knee up and down the court and half the Lakers roster was dealing with a myriad of maladies of their own, Bryant said nobody wanted to be the first "punk" and sit out a game.
Lakers free agent acquisition Theo Ratliff is quickly learning the code.
Ratliff is beginning his 16th NBA season and, at 37 years old, is the sixth oldest player in the NBA according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The wear and tear of more than 800 games worth of battles in the paint is starting to catch up with him.
Ratliff did not practice Wednesday, resting the same sore left knee that kept him out of the team's preseason finale last week. He is officially listed as day-to-day by the team, but he is committed to playing no matter how rickety he is right now.
"I think they want to try to conserve me [for the games] as much as possible," Ratliff said. "I've been through a lot throughout my career. I think they're trying to keep me a little fresher right now. I got a little soreness in the knee, so ain't no sense in pushing it [in practice].
"I'm fine [for the games]. It shouldn't be an issue."
Ratliff played 17 minutes against the Rockets and collected two rebounds, two blocks and an assist. With Andrew Bynum (knee) expected to be out until late November at the earliest, Ratliff will be relied upon for a similar workload moving forward.
"For sure," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said when asked if Ratliff's playing time would stay steady. "Otherwise Pau [Gasol is] going to have to be at high minutes and we don't want to do that."
Lamar Odom, who at 30 years old and starting his 12th NBA season, said he would like to play as many seasons as Ratliff or more and respects how the 6-10 center plays.
"It shows that he's a warrior and a professional," Odom said. "He comes in every day and gets his work done. Works out, looks great but I know it hurts [him]. But that's our lifestyle as athletes, it's supposed to hurt."
Odom still has a heavily-wrapped left thumb of his own that he's playing with, but joked that a potential lockout this summer could help him heal.
"I'll get a chance to rest after the season," Odom said. "It will probably be a long offseason anyway."
Bryant, in the meantime, continues to round into form from offseason surgery on his right knee. He scored 27 points on 8-for-20 shooting (40 percent) Tuesday and played 37 minutes. All of those statistics are dramatic improvements to his preseason averages, but he still has room to improve.
"He kept us competitive and carried the torch, so to speak, for the game at the end of the game," Jackson said. "There's some things that he still thinks he needs some work on, some of the aspects of his game and his body and they'll come along, but we're hopeful that those things look good."
Bryant said he felt good and thought he played a "great floor game" by racking up seven assists, but when asked about his shooting, rolled his eyes and said, "Do you really have to worry about me finding my shot?"
While Ratliff has gotten accustomed to how the team treats their bodies, fellow newbie Steve Blake quickly became aware of how the Lakers' attitudes are towards their teammates.
Blake closed out the game at point guard as the starter, Derek Fisher, watched from the bench as Blake made the go-ahead 3-pointer with 18.8 seconds left and smartly defended Aaron Brooks on the game's final possession to help the Lakers hold on to beat Houston.
Instead of pouting about playing zero fourth-quarter minutes on the night he collected his fifth championship ring, Fisher commended Blake's execution after the game and the gesture wasn't lost on the new guy.
"It's great," Blake said. "It's nice to have [that support]. Fish and I are both older, have been around a long time and we know it's not about individual success right now. It's about the team. When he's playing well, I'm happy for him and I know he's going to be happy for me when I'm doing well. That's a comforting feeling as a basketball player, because there are a lot of teams where the guy behind you wants to do better than you and that's not the way it should be."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Katherine R. Sharp from ESPN Stats & Research contributed to this report.
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