They’ve had an awful lot of these ring ceremonies in Los Angeles — a total of 11 in all now — but none like this one.
Sure, there were highlights from the Finals showdown with the Celtics and another banner being unveiled in the Staples Center rafters. And yeah, the commissioner was there handing out the bling. But in a break with typical NBA protocol, the Lakers introduced each other to the crowd, one player after another delivering an unscripted homage to one of their brothers-in-arms, then following it up with a heartfelt embrace.
"It’s always fun when this night comes," said Kobe Bryant, who’s participated in five of these ceremonies now. "You get a chance to enjoy it. Tonight was an even more special one because we all introduced each other."
But Steve Blake wasn’t a part of that.
The name on the front of his jersey might have read "Lakers," but Blake was definitely an interloper prior to tip-off vs. the Rockets in Tuesday night’s season opener — an outsider merely eavesdropping as his new teammates received their rings in something that felt closer to an intimate gathering of friends than the opening of a new NBA season.
By the end of the night, though, Blake clearly belonged.
It wasn’t just that he delivered on the offseason promise of improving the Lakers’ subpar 3-point shooting, making three of his four attempts from beyond the arc. Or that he proved more than capable of sharing the point guard burden with veteran Derek Fisher, playing almost half the game and the entire fourth quarter (a division of labor that may very well allow Fisher to be fresh enough for another of his patented postseason performances).
It wasn’t even that Blake ultimately hit what proved to be the game-winning shot, draining a 3-pointer with 18.8 seconds left on the clock to give the Lakers a 112-110 lead that ultimately held up despite a few nerve-wracking moments as the clock ticked down to zero.
It was that none other than Kobe Bryant trusted Blake to hit that shot. Not a bad way to say, "Welcome to the family."
"That was big of him to trust someone new on the court," Blake said, his smile indicating just how much it meant to him that Bryant gave him the ball with the game in the balance.
"We executed at the right time," Bryant said, as matter-of-fact as he always is (perhaps another indication that Blake has been fully accepted into the fold). "It was something we talked about at the timeout."
There was reason to be concerned about Blake’s ability to execute in a situation like that, at least based on his preseason performance. In eight games that didn’t count in the standings, the free-agent acquisition made just 38.8 percent of his shots – including just five of his 20 3-point attempts, causing many Lakers fans who were unfamiliar with Blake’s game to wonder if he was going to live up to his offseason billing.
For his part, Blake never wondered.
"I had some games where I shot pretty bad and one game where I shot it really good," Blake said. "I just try to get it going, try to be consistent and knock down shots whenever I get the chance."
In a somewhat improbable development, Blake got that chance in his very first game in a Lakers uniform.
With Fisher struggling from the field (he would make just 1 of 7 shots before taking a seat for good with 3:17 left in the third quarter) and the Lakers having an equally difficult time erasing all of what was at one time a 15-point Rockets lead, Lakers head coach Phil Jackson went with a smaller lineup, pairing Blake in the backcourt with Shannon Brown.
The move paid off so well — between Brown harassing Houston into turnovers on the defensive end and Blake ending the quarter with back-to-back 3-pointers that cut the Rockets’ lead to 82-77 — that Jackson stuck with the combination for the final 14:41 of the game.
Which left Blake in position to script the perfect finish to his Lakers debut — a Hollywood ending that not even he anticipated.
"You just get ready to play every night," Blake said. "You never know what’s going to come. Definitely didn’t expect to hit a late-game shot like that, but I was definitely ready for it. I’m just glad it ended the way it did … with a win."