Andrew Bynum had to be quaking as a 19-year-old who was asked for the first time, like so many legends before him, to start for the Lakers at center.
Without Kobe, Lakers shine
The home team had to be shaken by the news, before even getting through their first game, that Phil Jackson and his new hip won't be in Oakland for Wednesday's road bow at Golden State.
Kobe Bryant, furthermore, absolutely had to play in this nationally televised opener -- had to -- because there was no chance he'd be sitting on the bench in street clothes with his old pal Raja Bell in the house.
Try nope, nope and nope.
Day 1 of the new NBA season was a bit of a Fright Night, starting with Miami's startling home humiliation by Chicago and capped by the Phoenix Suns' meek surrender of a fat lead and their ultimate failure to capitalize on Bryant's absence in a 114-106 defeat.
Pretty much nothing followed the supposed script, on either coast, except for this non-surprise: Amare Stoudemire struggled in his comeback game.
I thought I'd be delving here into the Lakers' troubles when Bryant unexpectedly decided that his surgically repaired right knee wasn't ready for opening night, as much as it must have pained him not to dress for his first encounter with Bell since the teams' chippy seven-game series last spring. You were naturally moved to wonder whether No. 24, now 16 weeks into a rehab process that was only supposed to last 12, is hurting much more than the outside world suspects.
Yet you quickly shifted those thoughts to the Suns' troubles when Phoenix made its first nine shots of the season, amassed a 19-point cushion in the first quarter and then collapsed under the force of lackadaisical play at both ends and the combo of Bynum and Lamar Odom shredding them inside.
Odom was a picture of composure, playing his first real game since the unspeakable tragedy of losing his infant son over the summer. He rumbled for 34 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, which were supplemented by a remarkable 18 points, nine boards and five dimes from Bynum, who happens to be the youngest player in the league and who briefly had to leave the floor with a first-quarter foot injury.
The report on Stoudemire won't be any more pleasant for the Suns.
Amare came off the bench as expected -- one of the reasons, I'm told, is that Kurt Thomas has simply played too well since camp started to drop him from the starting lineup -- and actually enjoyed an early flurry of six points. A nine-point Suns edge was stretched to 14 in Stoudemire's first stint, which began with a fairly long takeoff and resounding dunk from the edge of the lane, made possible by Steve Nash's drive into the paint that drew three defenders.
Stoudemire, though, only wound up logging 11 minutes and didn't score after the opening quarter, looking increasingly labored in his movement and predictably scuffling to find his niche in an offense that has been overhauled drastically since Amare demolished San Antonio in the 2005 Western Conference finals. Suns coach Mike D'Antoni gave him a look in a crucial stretch in the third quarter, with Phoenix desperately clinging to a 71-69 lead, but back-to-back Stoudemire turnovers -- getting stripped in the post by Odom and fumbling a Nash pass at the free-throw line -- led to layups at the other end.
The Suns never led again . . . while Lakers rookie guard Jordan Farmar somehow went on to match Stoudemire's offensive production by shaking the visitors' non-existent D for three uncontested layups.
The only solace for the embarrassed Suns is that they were ready for a stumbling start from its new No. 1, and not only because their season opens with three back-to-back sets in the first eight days. Phoenix, as Nash notes, became a different team in the months Stoudemire was away recovering from two knee surgeries, reliant on faster ball and player movement and quick decision-making. It was more of an improvisational approach, without a supremely athletic power player to bail them out.
To fit in, Stoudemire will have to learn to accept a secondary role and find ways to contribute while he re-establishes his health and regains trust in his body . . . but without, say, detracting from the effectiveness of Boris Diaw, who had more fouls (six) than points (four) or rebounds (five) in this one.
"He's learning to adjust to the way we play," Nash said several hours before tipoff as he sat on the team bus, awaiting the Suns' ride to the morning shootaround.
You had to know, in other words, that we were never going to see a well-adjusted Amare so soon, no matter what else crazy would be happening in South Florida and downtown L.A. That was apparently the NBA's one safe assumption on Halloween.
Andrew Bernstein/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant, who missed the opener because of soreness in his right knee, counsels Lamar Odom (34 points), right, and Andrew Bynum (18 points) during Tuesday's 114-106 win over the Suns.
Seeing the Bulls uncork their best Phoenix imitation, running Miami's doors off in the first half, I couldn't help but wonder how many Dallas Mavericks were watching the same broadcast and wishing they tried to run the ball like this in the Finals.
That was Dallas' big mistake in June.
It's obviously much tougher to push the pace in a series with those kind of stakes, and with the Heat playing several levels above the disinterest they displayed after collecting their rings, but you know the Suns would have gone down sprinting if they had reached the Finals.
When things started slipping away from the Mavs, they let Miami dictate tempo instead of trying to mimic the Suns' style, which is how you beat the Heat.
Not that anyone has to tell the Bulls. If you want to draw any conclusions after one game, it's that Chicago clearly gets it. -- Marc Stein
• OK, let's not overreact to one 108-66 game. And yes, we remember that the Heat are the champs. But one thing is clear after the Debacle on Da Beach: Of Miami's "15 Strong," there are about 14 guys who are going to have to prove they're worthy of Dwyane Wade. -- Royce Webb
It's telling that the Heat didn't/wouldn't rally on ring night. Age and low effort are a deadly combination. Shaq, Antoine, and GP (7-for-24, 10 turnovers) will make Miami look two steps behind on a lot of nights. The effort thing will no doubt be a continuing and escalating source of frustration for Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade. -- Chris Ramsay
The center of the Miami Heat's circular locker room, formerly home to a tub of thousands and thousands of "15 Strong" cards, is now covered by a new carpet embossed in the center with the word "Champions" spelled out in the Heat's distinctive font.
Two walls outside the locker room are plastered with photographs of the Heat's championship celebration, including a priceless one of former intern and now senior vice president Andy Elisberg pouring a bottle of champagne on himself.
Miami owner Micky Arison purchased rings for all 415 team employees, and coach Pat Riley said everyone was also getting an Armani suit. -- Chris Sheridan
Bulls rookie Tyrus Thomas walked to the team bus with a white piece of tape across his nose, which was broken by James Posey's elbow. Thomas got up slowly but made his two free throws. He had missed his first four attempts after not having been fouled quite as hard as he was by Posey. -- C.S.
Chicago rookie Thabo Sefolosha went 4-for-4 and scored 11 points with two steals in 11 minutes of garbage time and looked almost as good as Chris Duhon, who was 7-for-8 from the field before leaving in the third quarter with a bruised foot. -- C.S.
The LeBrons pool training commercial is laugh out loud funny. All four LeBrons are at their best . . . especially business LeBron who nails a very difficult dive off the high board and then smiles for the underwater camera. -- C.R.
Even better than LeBron's dive is the soundtrack, a tasty bite of "Summer Madness," by the original Kool and the Gang. -- R.W.
• At the end of a Monday interview, LeBron James did rock-paper-scissors with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show." LeBron won, using the ol' paper to cover the Stewart rock. So Bron enters the season on a winning note. (Always play "scissors," which has a terrific upside in RPS) -- Andrew Ayres
• Chuckles Barkley, as usual, had the line of the night, after the Bulls' 42-point annihilation of the Heat -- "I was talking to my bookie earlier today, and I took Miami +40 . . ." -- R.W.
• The Heat are playing 5 on 4 when Shaq is in. He simply cannot (or will not) move on either side of the ball. -- David Thorpe
• No team can make the playoffs with Chris Quinn getting quality minutes. Maybe in a season or two, but not now or the near future. -- D.T.
• The Heat are a one-man team offensively, even moreso than in the playoffs. Jason Williams is so important to everyone other than Wade. He gets shots for them.-- D.T.
• The refs were not lying -- they are clearly looking for the opportunity to "t" someone.-- D.T.
• Anyone who watched Miami struggle to defend the little guys from Chicago in the playoffs knew that this team is even more dangerous with the addition of Ben Wallace and P.J. Brown. Brown is such a solid player on both ends of the floor. -- D.T.
• Duhon looked more like his old high school self than I have seen since those days. He was "Coach K'd" for four years at Duke, filling a role, but coming in to Duke he was considered to be a truly special shooter and scorer. The small run Miami was trying to mount midway thru the third quarter was snuffed out by back to back 3's from him -- the second coming from serious range (the first one was a gift to him by Shaq's poor hedge on a ball screen).-- D.T.
• The Bulls rolled the Heat, and Ben Gordon went 1-9 from the field. Ouch babe.-- D.T.
• Checked in with Bill Simmons early in the second game to make sure he had witnessed every stunning dribble of that, uh, historic opener. On cue, he promptly informed me that Vladimir Radmanovic borrowed John Travolta's hair from "Welcome Back Kotter" for opening night. -- M.S.
• Ron Artest's new album is out. It has a parental warning label. Probably could use an NBA commissioner warning label -- A.A.
No drawn-out investigations. No hesitation to mete out a harsh punishment.
The NBA protests media descriptions of its new crackdown on backtalk from players to referees, but there is no debate here: This is a no-tolerance policy, and rightfully so.
Monday's decree, imposing a one-year ban on the Orlando fan who shouted a shameful slur at Houston's Dikembe Mutombo last week, was wonderfully proactive.
Hey, the Heat are worried about the end of the season, not the beginning. Worked last time.
Bulls spoil Heat's night with blowout.
Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
Alonzo Mourning played like a man possessed to earn this ring. After getting it Tuesday, 'Zo (one point, 15 minutes) and Co. were rocked by Chicago.
Quote of the Day
Quote of the Day, Part 2
-- Andrew Ayres
You could see it on their faces as they collected their championship bling rings. That was what this night was all about for the defending champion Miami Heat, and when the ball went up, you could see just as clearly that their minds were elsewhere.
"It was embarrassing," coach Pat Riley allowed afterward, while Shaquille O'Neal would only go as far as to say he was "a little bit" angry over a 42-point loss that shattered all records for ineptitude by a champion on the first night defending a title.
Back in 1982, the Lakers' minds were similarly elsewhere when they received their rings and faced the Golden State Warriors in their opener and got trounced -- and we use that word loosely in light of what happened here tonight -- by 15 points. Up until now, that was the standard that all teams playing after a ring ceremony were trying not to replicate.
But after this stinkola, we feel safe saying that no defending champion in the next 20 seasons -- aw heck, make it the next 50 seasons -- will sink as low as the Heat sunk against the deeper, younger, quicker . . . and apparently much hungrier Chicago Bulls.
"We have a lot of work to do as a team. We didn't do anything right. This is my fourth one, and I don't know the outcome of all of them, but I've been around 15 years, and you always have one of those nights," O'Neal said afterward, walking into the Heat locker room sans the big blingy ring thing (when do these things stop getting larger every season?) he was handed at the start of the night by commissioner David Stern.
(Prior to the ring ceremony, by the way, Stern had Shaq in stitches in the locker room when he told him his shorts were too short, and he could expect a fine. Stern added another zinger when he told Shaq the slimy substance he was rubbing on his body was the true culprit in making the new ball too slippery).
O'Neal had the honor of being introduced last during the ring ceremony -- a curious placement given that Dwyane Wade was probably 10 times more responsible for the title than Shaq, making him the final Heat player to sidle up to Stern with a goofy grin on his face to accept his championship reward.
Among the players who went before him, Alonzo Mourning practically bear hugged Stern, Gary Payton gave him a brotherly pat on the upper arm, and Jason Williams actually appeared to be saying something gracious (who knew he was capable?). The fans soaked it up and went bonkers when the championship banner was raised to the rafters, but when the tapestry reached its apex, one side was hanging a couple feet lower than the other. It was just a little cockeyed, which turned out to be a precursor of things to come.
The Bulls had the Heat on their heels from the get-go, and a six-point lead after one quarter ballooned to 29 at halftime after Chicago knocked down 15 of 19 shots in the second quarter. The building was at least 80 percent empty by the time the massacre finally came to its conclusion, the vast majority of fans having left happy nonetheless because they got to see what they came to see -- a celebration of last season's accomplishment.
Jay (Burke, VA): Marc, you have 168 days from today until the end of the regular season to prepare an apology for Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, and the Los Angeles Lakers...because they WILL make the playoffs.
Marc Stein: Noted. I'll keep that in mind. As I wrote in our Dime preview, normally I'd put Kobe and Phil in the playoffs no matter what, like I did last October, but I think the Lakers have a LOT more working against them this time.
If Kobe is healthy enough to submit a full season, they have a great opportunity to prove me wrong. But Kwame's hurt, Odom is coming off an unspeakably difficult summer and the roster was upgraded only marginally. Knowing how much Phil loves big guards, it's too bad they're not in the mix for Jalen Rose, because he'd help them.
Dave (Tempe, AZ): I have been trying to watch the progress of Amare as much as possible. It seems like every week is different. One week he is saying he is feeling almost 100 percent, the next week he is talking about how he feels his team is doubting him. What do you make of this and do you have any up to date news?
Marc Stein: That's because every week is indeed different in the life of Amare these days. He's going to need a season to regain trust in his body again. He'll start out as the sixth man and I think he can really help the Suns, IF he can accept the role. Contrary to popular opinion, Phoenix does NOT need Amare at 100 percent to win it all.
The Suns believe they would have beaten Dallas with a healthy Raja Bell and I'm inclined to agree. But Amare has to be willing to be a role player for a season and find ways to contribute in a more complex offense than Phoenix ran in his 2005 heyday. Hardly a sure thing.
Chad Ford talks with Bulls GM John Paxson about Ben Wallace, Tyrus Thomas, the upcoming season and more.
• On Wallace: "We've lacked an identity player ... He'll bring a personality and a presence that we haven't had."
• "We fouled too much [last season] ... we have to get better. We have to defend at a high level without fouling."