LOS ANGELES -- Poor South Florida over there. The Miami LeBrons and their followers look consigned to a fall and winter of battering-ram inevitability with their 65 or so wins, their No. 1 conference seeding, their championship know-how, their entrenched cohesion. They have such precious little chance at the doubt, the melodrama, the rancor and the general grinding of molars already underway over here through 1/82nd of the overwrought Lakers season, which began with a 99-91 home loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night.
While the shiny Heat specialize in near-certainty, the equally shiny Lakers dole out curiosity. Their warmups ought to be lab coats. They're Dr. Mitch Kupchak's five-star Petri dish, rich in possibilities, including that of implosion.
If you have attended an implosion, you know of its odd allure.
On opening night, with opening-night razzmatazz, the Lakers unveiled the new-toy starting lineup of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace, then the whole gaudy operation managed to spend an evening looking toothless. Other than the 12-for-31 free throw shooting, the clunky offense, the 12-for-31 free throw shooting, the slowish defense, the 12-for-31 free throw shooting, the paucity of energy, the sarcastic cheering whenever Dwight Howard made any one of his three successful free throws out of 14, the silence of Nash and the occasional booing from disappointed patrons, it was a boring evening of dominance.
The victorious Mavericks looked invigorated and spirited even on their bench and even with the injured Dirk Nowitzki on their shelf, and it's just so rude and inconvenient when you're planning a coronation and then the first guest comes in and insists upon trying hard, and pretty soon it's the Darren Collison highlight reel that only his next of kin would have come to see.
Yet in terms of the intrigue surrounding the mighty-looking Lakers, the season simply could not have begun any better.
"At times we looked tired out there," Lakers head coach Mike Brown said. Now there's a line you don't hear every opener.
"I've just got to stop thinking," an amiable Howard said of his free throws. "I get up there, I'm thinking, I've got to make this, I've got to make this. End up bricking them." Now there's a passage you never expect to hear around the Staples Center: a center who can't make his free throws. Oh, wait. Never mind.
"If you execute in this league and you have talent, you're going to have a chance to win," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said, a reminder even if he did not intend a reminder.
He spoke good news, for this fall and winter in Los Angeles might just teem with an enticing bipolarity, with aggravation, with exhilaration, with rumor and clamor. Stretches of the season might vary wildly and deliciously. Nothing coheres this great and dissolute city like the Lakers, so people will howl on the radio, coach from the audience and belittle Brown's Princeton offense, noting that Princeton never won anything, overlooking the annual grind of the Ivy League schedule, plus the daunting schoolwork. Wednesday night in Portland seems a must-watch already, with the forecast for Friday night against the Clippers calling for a reasonable chance of high-level hysteria.
"You guys shouldn't expect just because we have a talented team, for everything to just click," Howard said, but 16 titles have taught people here to expect things to click. With chatter about a 17th out and airborne, the opening of a new season felt like the opening of some grand theater, of the grandest basketball experiment in all the world, right here. Staples filled up. They had T-shirts noting a "New Era" and the "Same Goal." They introduced starting lineups. They dropped onto the court a great circular drape with footage of the voluminous Laker glory. They had scoreboard videos of the flashy offseason imports Howard and Nash introducing themselves, including Nash saying that he liked soccer and movies and, of his first car, "I went to a university [Santa Clara] that didn't pay its college athletes, so my first car was [pause] a Ford Explorer."They handed Bryant a microphone, and he played host by telling the crowd, "As we know we have a lot of expectations this season. We're working hard to live up to those expectations. ... Thank you very much. Let's get this party started. Enjoy the show."
It did not seem that he would wind up shooting an 11-for-14 so tranquil that it might make you ask, "He did?" It did not seem that the Lakers would lack "second effort" on defense, as Brown noted, or that Nash would look sort of lost at 38, promising the Nash acquisition as a potential subject for many a slow winter day. It did not seem that Dallas would get a committee of input from everyone from Brendan Wright to Eddy Curry to Rodrigue Beaubois to the ancient Vince Carter, and produce such a second-half romp that the eight-point final margin seemed unjustly wee. And as things got going on a heavy new year, you might have forgotten about the heel injury that suppressed Bryant for a week until Tuesday.
You might have forgotten that of course, at the end of the night, when he rose at his locker and pulled his feet from a big bucket of ice, then strode across the locker room, his gait would make him look older than he used to, as do most of us who lack plastic surgeons. After just one game, one measly game, that probably means nothing or next to it, but for at least a while here, we might not be sure what much of anything means. Looking way across the land, Miami seems so dull.