Shannon Brown is not simply driving the basket anymore, when left open he’s knocking down jump shots. He is shooting 52 percent from 3-point range.
Lamar Odom is playing at an All Star level so far this season.Photos by Jeff Lewis Lakers are 8-0 as the starters build big leads and the second unit maintains it. By Jason LewisSentinel Sports Editor
While the Miami Heat have hit a couple bumps in the road while trying to figure out how to use their new pieces, the Los Angeles Lakers have had no problem adjusting to new players. With an 8-0 start, this team looks like they have been playing together for years. The level this group is playing at is pretty amazing as they are blowing the doors off of just about every opponent, and they look better than last year’s team. The Trail Blazers were supposed to give them a test, but that just wasn’t the case this past Sunday.“We looked at this game as being a test for us, so we came out with a lot of focus,” Kobe Bryant said. “We jumped on them and we never let up.”The starters of this team, outside of Ron Artest, have been together since the middle of the 2007-2008 season, and the starting unit has had Artest for a season now, so they are playing as a cohesive unit. But the second team, with newly added players such as Matt Barnes and Steve Blake to go alone with Shannon Brown, has been playing together for only eight games, but they seem like they have been playing together for years. Brown attributes that to the team working hard before the season.“Getting in early and playing together in the summer time before training camp, and just feeling each other out, you know, how we like to do certain things, and just going out and getting things done,” Brown said.The starting unit has built up huge leads early in games and the second unit has not given anything back when they have come in. They have either maintained the lead, and in some cases extended it, which has gotten the second unit more playing time. Lakers coach Phil Jackson trusts them with the lead.“If we’re out there playing well then there is no sense in taking us out,” Brown said. “Any time we can build on the lead that the starters already have, we just go out there and get our rhythm and our chemistry and our comradery even better.”Brown, Barnes, and Blake have played so well that it has allowed the starters, namely Bryant, to get extended rest during games.Last year Bryant averaged 38.8 minutes per game during the regular season and 40.1 during the postseason. But this year Jackson has kept Bryant on the bench for extended minutes, as Bryant is only playing 31.3 minutes per game. This past Sunday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Bryant played the first 10 minutes of the game, and then sat until the midway point of the second period. He then played a few minutes in the second period before sitting for the rest of the half. It did not matter much that game that Bryant sat for so long. The starting unit built a 13 point first period lead, and the second unit, playing the bulk of the second period, outscored the Trail Blazers by nine points, giving the Lakers a 22 point halftime lead. At one point in the second half, with the second unit getting a lot of playing time, the Lakers built a 29 point lead and the only question in the game was whether or not the fans in attendance would get two free tacos or not. Bryant was able to rest, playing only 24 minutes in the game. Barnes and Blake have been upgrades over Jordan Farmar, who is now with the New Jersey Nets, and Sasha Vujacic, who has been buried on the end of the Lakers bench so far this season. And Brown has improved his game, mostly his outside shooting. “I’m not trying to catch the ball and automatically drive, because that’s what a lot of people expect me to do,” Brown said. “So they close off short or they don’t put a hand up, so I get a clean look at the basket.”In the past Brown has relied on his athletic abilities to get him to the basket, but over the offseason he worked hard on his outside shot, so when he is open, instead of driving, he’ll hit that open shot. Last season Brown shot 42 percent from the field and 32 percent from behind the 3-point line. This season Brown is shooting 51 percent from the field and 52 percent from 3-point range. The second unit will only get better when Andrew Bynum returns, moving Lamar Odom from the starting unit to the second unit. The way Odom is playing it might be tempting to leave him in the starting line up. The guy has been amazing, and is playing at an All Star level. He is averaging 15.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per game while shooting 62 percent from the field and 69 percent from 3-point range. Odom’s early season play is one reason why they are off to a great start. But he has had a history of being an extremely streaky player, and at some point he is going to hit a slump. When he does move to the second unit, it would be hard to imagine any team’s second team competing with them. This coming week the Lakers will have another tough test when they travel to the Denver Nuggets tonight. Do not count on the Nuggets to roll over like the Trail Blazers did. The Nuggets are off to a good start and their All Star forward Carmelo Anthony seems to have put the offseason drama behind him. He is not playing like a guy who wants to get out of Denver. He’s playing like a guy who wants to win while he is still in Denver. Next week will be the Lakers first road trip, where they will play on back-to-back nights at Milwaukee and Detroit and then finishing the trip at Minnesota. The Lakers will be favored in all of those games, but they’ll have to lose at some point. In an 82 game season, every team has a stinker somewhere. The Lakers were supposed to run the Toronto Raptors out of the building, but that was one of their toughest games this season. And the Trail Blazers were supposed to give them a challenge, but that was one of their easiest games of the season.