When Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant finally emerged from the Los Angeles Lakers’ locker room late in the first quarter, they got a standing ovation just for walking to their seats.
The Lakers’ fans shouldn’t worry. Their big stars expect to be out of street clothes and back in uniform very soon – and for much bigger games than an exhibition in the Inland Empire.
Damian Lillard had 14 points and seven assists in his first NBA action, and the Portland Trail Blazers ran to a 93-75 victory over Los Angeles in a preseason game Wednesday night.
The Lakers visited their avid fans an hour east of Los Angeles with just 60 percent of their projected starting lineup in uniform. Bryant sat out to rest a strained right shoulder, and Howard isn’t playing during his deliberate return from offseason back surgery – although he was healthy enough to join in the ”Kobe! Kobe!” chant that erupted in the first half.
”I feel pretty good, but I keep telling you guys, I want to be 110 percent,” Howard said. ”I have to make sure I’m in great shape, and my conditioning is where it needs to be. It’s a process, and we’ll get there.”
Steve Nash scored 13 points and Metta World Peace added 12 as the Lakers lost their second straight preseason game by double digits. Pau Gasol had eight points on 3-of-12 shooting, but Portland surged to a 13-point lead in the third quarter while the Lakers’ three healthy starters were still playing.
”We’re finding out our strengths and how to combine them,” Gasol said. ”We have two main guys out, and they make a big difference, so we’ll have to see how we play when we’re full force.”
Bryant said he tweaked his shoulder while dunking on Antawn Jamison in practice Tuesday, but it didn’t start hurting until later that day. He wanted to play against Portland, but the team overruled him with six preseason games still left on its schedule.
Howard has refused to say when he might make his Lakers debut, but the six-time All-Star is participating in every practice with no apparent limitations. Howard worked out on the Ontario court with Lakers assistant coaches Chuck Person and Darvin Ham about 30 minutes before the game, delighting hundreds of early arriving, camera-wielding fans who didn’t get to see Bryant in action.
Lakers coach Mike Brown has absolutely no interest in the Lakers’ preseason record, but World Peace and Gasol acknowledged they would prefer to start winning a few games. The players competing for jobs on Los Angeles’ bench again struggled to score consistently, but Brown saw no particular importance in it.
”We’ve probably only put in 35 or 40 percent of (the offense) we’re going to put in,” Brown said. ”It’s still going to take some time for these guys to understand.”
LaMarcus Aldridge added 14 points and eight rebounds for the Blazers in their preseason opener under new coach Terry Stotts. Lillard, the sixth overall pick in last June’s draft from Weber State, looked sharp in 24 minutes as Portland’s point guard, adding five rebounds and two 3-pointers.
”We still have a lot of work to do,” Stotts said. ”I thought Damian had a good first outing. He showed good signs, and the movement on our offense was pretty good. Defensively, we can get a lot better.”
Meyers Leonard, the 11th overall pick out of Illinois, had 10 points and five rebounds off the bench.
Nicolas Batum had 12 points in his first game since returning to Portland with a four-year deal worth more than $45 million when the Blazers matched an offer sheet from Minnesota after Batum’s agent said his client wanted to join the Timberwolves.