Lots of things to hype going into the opening night tilt between the Rockets and Lakers in Los Angeles. Kobe Bryant was making his return to the court after playing in just six games last season. Dwight Howard was returning to Los Angeles, again, after spending one unfulfilling season in a Lakers uniform. Jeremy Lin was playing his first game with the Lakers after being traded there this offseason by the Rockets.
Then just as the story looked like it would be a simple one with James Harden scoring 32 points to lead Houston to an easy 108-90 victory, a little dust-up between Bryant and Howard in the fourth quarter stole the headlines.
After Howard corralled a Lakers missed shot, Bryant was reaching in slapping at his arms. Howard had both elbows pointing out and began to swing them. Swing them like all big men do, not swing them trying to bury Bryant into next week. He connected with one of them, right across Bryant’s jaw.
Howard was whistled for the foul and the two began staring and then yapping at each other. Howard saying “I know you,” while smiling in Bryant’s direction. Bryant responded with “try me” and later was shaking his head at Howard and said, “soft.”
No one has ever disputed that the two did not get along during their one season in Los Angeles together. But keep in mind this all took place with the Rockets leading the Lakers by 25 points. Referees reviewed the play and assessed a personal foul on Bryant, a flagrant-1 foul on Howard and called technical fouls on each.
Both players would check out of the game for good after shooting their respective free throws.
That drama quickly gave way to a much sadder atmosphere, when promising Lakers rookie forward, Julius Randle crumbled under the basket in pain. He was holding his right leg, which needed an air cast after it was ultimately deemed to be broken. He had to be stretchered off the court.
The game itself was not particularly competitive, with the Lakers never drawing closer than seven points after the first quarter. Harden scored his 32 points on 17 shots, thanks to a 15-of-16 performance at the free throw line. He also added six assists and did not have a single turnover. He also sat out the entire fourth quarter.
Terrence Jones, getting his first career opening night start, delivered a strong performance with 16 points and 13 rebounds. He did an excellent job of helping the Rockets withstand Howard’s absence for much of the game in foul trouble.
Trevor Ariza made a triumphant return to the Rockets lineup with 16 points, including an outstanding 5-of-8 on 3-pointers. Howard added 13 points and 11 rebounds in just over 20 minutes of play. Howard showed no ill effects from either of his preseason injuries (knee and left arm laceration), although playing in just three preseason games may not have had him in the best basketball shape.
Bryant scored 19 points, while missing 11 of his 17 shots, but he moved very well. Lin sparkled for a few minutes in the third quarter, when the Lakers briefly cut the Rockets lead to just seven points, but his final line leaves a lot to be desired. He finished with seven points and six assists, but was only 1-of-5 from the floor and had four turnovers.
Houston heads to Utah for the Jazz’ season opener on Wednesday night.