Lakers' backups take center stage

LOS ANGELES -- That other team, you know, the two-time champions, started the season as well, Tuesday night, with a low-key ring ceremony consisting of one teammate introducing the next, followed by a victory produced by some low-wattage players.

The first step of the Lakers’ title defense, a 112-110 victory over the Rockets, belonged in part to Steve Blake, one of the less spectacular (albeit fully logical) signings of the summer. Blake hit back-to-back 3-pointers that pulled the Lakers from 11 points down to within five in the final minute of the third quarter.

Then Blake delivered the two biggest moments of the game, hitting a go-ahead 3-pointer with 18 seconds remaining and deterring Aaron Brooks’ game-tying reverse layup attempt on the final play.

The night also belonged to Shannon Brown, one of the free agents for whom the cash register did not toll this summer, whose steals and jump shots of his own allowed the Lakers to take the lead in the fourth quarter. He had four steals and 16 points and made four of his five three-point attempts, the by-product of a summer spent working on his game. Brown re-signed with the Lakers for a two-year contract that will pay him $2.2 million this season, less than he expected for a player coming off two championships.

“It’s a business, man,” Brown said. “I definitely had to realize that.

“There’s no sense in complaining about it, ain’t no sense in dwelling on it, letting it stop me from doing what I’ve got to do. I’ve just got to go out there and continue to get better in every aspect of my game.”

The Lakers spent the first half running their offense through Pau Gasol, the man Phil Jackson has anointed as the player to carry them while Andrew Bynum rehabs his knee and Kobe Bryant recovers from knee surgery of his own. Gasol had 29 points and 11 rebounds.

Bryant was cautious, looking to pass more than he looked to finish plays off himself. He scored 11 of his 27 points at the free-throw line and used his greatest burst of energy to leap from the bench and wrap Brown in an exuberant hug after Brown hit two 3-pointers in a span of 20 seconds in the fourth quarter.

“ He worked so hard on his game, from being a slasher/ballhandler to a catch-and-shoot player,” Bryant said. “ I was proud of him.”

Afterward Bryant was subdued. The Larry O’Brien trophy had already been put to bed, wrapped in a baby-blue blanket and hauled away by Jackson’s assistant, a fitting end to a night that reminded us championship components can come together with little fanfare.