Sloppy opener gives Lakers plenty to work on

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers have a lot of work to do, and less than 24 hours in which to do it. Otherwise, their most promising season in a few years will be off to an 0-2 start. They were beaten by the Dallas Mavericks 99-91 in their season and home opener, and will take on the Blazers in Portland on Wednesday night—a place in which the Lakers have had much trouble winning over the years.

Kobe Bryant spoke to the crowd before the game, ending his short speech with “Enjoy the show.” They didn’t.

Missed free throws killed the Lakers. The Lakers went 12 of 31 from the line, a putrid 38.7 percent. Center Dwight Howard was the main culprit, clanging 11 of 14.

“I’m thinking too much when I’m up there,” Howard revealed.  “Gotta make it, gotta make it. I gotta stop thinking like that.”

I think he’s on to something there.  In practice his form is smooth, and he connects on a large majority of his free throws. Not thinking about it, just doing it.

Hall of Fame big men who were terrible career free-throw shooters: Wilt Chamberlain (.511), Bill Russell (.561) and O’Neal (.527) all were excellent practice shooters. Couldn’t do it in a game, though.

Russell was somewhat of an exception during his run of 11 championships in 13 seasons. It’s said that in the fourth quarter of games—regular season or playoffs—his free-throw percentage was in the .800 range.

Back to Howard. Overall he had a good debut in gold and purple, scoring 19 points and grabbing 10 rebounds He was 8 of 12 from the field, but fouled out with 2:02 remaining in the game.

Dallas forward Elton Brand said the Mavs weren’t playing “Hack-a-Dwight” but they were aware of his problems shooting free throws.

“Better to foul him before he gets the dunk or layup,” Brand said. “That definitely puts the odds in our favor with him shooting free throws.”

Poor free-throw shooting put the Lakers in precarious positions throughout Shaquille O’Neal’s eight-year tenure as the starting center. It looks like the future could be similar with Howard and his .588 free-throw percentage.

But if they win three NBA titles with Howard at center, it will all be forgotten, right Shaq?

“We will make shots from the free-throw line, I’m confident of that” coach Mike Brown said. Yeah, but the question is—how many?

What should really upset the Lakers is that Dallas toyed with them in the second half when they didn’t have Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman available.

“We did great considering our two 7-footers were out,” Brand said with a big smile.

It’s just one game, but the Lakers looked out of sync for most of the 48 minutes. “They didn’t look that comfortable running their offense the way they wanted to,” said Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, part of the TNT broadcasting crew along with Kevin Harlan.

The Lakers have played 101 regular-season games in Portland, winning just 41. Last season, they lost their only meeting at the Rose Garden, 107-96.

Clippers owner Donald Sterling was at the Lakers-Mavs game Tuesday. His team has its opener Wednesday evening against the Memphis Grizzlies at Staples Center. “We’ll have to see about making this place jump (Wednesday) night.”

Before the game, Brown said he hopes the offense is rolling smoothly after the new year, or at the latest after the All Star break. Note to coach: If it takes that long, you might be watching the second half of the season from your lovely home.

And it might be a good idea to get the defense up to speed soon, too.

Let’s all remember that it is just one game.  If they lose to Portland, then you can begin to panic.