LOS ANGELES – A Lakers-Clippers game, even in the preseason, is typically full of stars, but most of them were missing Wednesday night.
Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard sat. So did Chris Paul and Lamar Odom.
A disappointment? It might have been, but it’s possible a new star emerged at Staples Center.
Clippers third-year guard Eric Bledsoe, starting in place of Paul and playing 43 minutes, barely missed a triple double, finishing with 22 points, 11 assists and 9 steals in the Clippers’ 97-91 win over the Lakers, who remain winless in the preseason at 0-7.
“One thing about Eric, he’s very competitive,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “He doesn’t shy away from the moment, and he wants the ball. He has a lot of good qualities like that. I was pleased that he kept attacking, he kept running angles and pick and rolls. He kind of spread us out and was making plays for us.”
The Lakers are still searching for productive combinations, but with the regular-season opener less than a week away, they’re uncertain whether Bryant will be fully recovered from a strained and bruised right foot he sustained Sunday against the Sacramento Kings. Howard, who is coming back from back surgery, got the night off after making his Lakers debut in the same game.
Lakers coach Mike Brown, asked after the game if he expects Bryant to be ready to play Tuesday in the opener against the Dallas Mavericks, said, “I don’t know. … The reality of it is, no matter how hard I think about that injury, it’s going to heal as quick as it heals. Do I wish he played today? Yeah, but there’s nothing I can do.”
There was still a constellation of stars: Blake Griffin for the Clippers, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash for the Lakers. But the night was really a showcase for Bledsoe and Matt Barnes, who gave the Clippers a boost off the bench with 18 points and six rebounds.
Bledsoe’s role will increase significantly this season after he was limited to just 40 games in 2011-12 following surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. But with Mo Williams traded away, Bledsoe has been elevated to Paul’s primary backup.
“This is a big season, not only for me but as a team,” Bledsoe said. “We have high expectations, especially for ourselves as individuals. So we just have to come in focused and buy into the system.”
Bledsoe’s speed gives the Clippers a different look when he enters the game, but he said he has also benefited from observing Paul, who is regarded as the best point guard in the NBA.
“I kind of watch Chris when I’m on the bench and see how easy he gets his shots and gets his teammates open,” he said. “So I watch and try to translate that over to my game.”
It must be working. Paul, who was accidentally hit on the leg by a teammate in practice and sat out for precautionary reasons, is excited about Bledsoe’s game and potential.
“I’m EB’s biggest fan,” he said. “I’m always on him about being aggressive because he’s fast. He’s faster than I was at my fastest point. It’s amazing to see him play at that speed, and now he has confidence.
“With us, it’s like a one-two punch when I come out of the game. It’s not a backup coming in. That’s a starter in this league coming in the game, and I love that.”
The Lakers got 17 points from Gasol and 13 points and 7 rebounds from rookie Robert Sacre, who was the 60th player chosen in the NBA draft. But without Bryant and Howard, they lack much firepower.
“It’s definitely a work in progress,” backup guard Steve Blake said. “We definitely made some mistakes, too many turnovers. We executed a couple of nice plays, but it’s one of those games where we haven’t really played a team that’s so aggressive. It was a learning process.”
But time is running short. The regular season begins in less than a week. With or without Kobe Bryant, the Lakers will have to be ready.