Andrew Unterberger loves L.A. Here’s his second report from the Staples Center…
After another car mini-crisis averted — I think it was just sulking over my cruelly abandoning it for a couple days over Thanksgiving — I headed back to the L.A. Live area for Lakers-Pacers, the night part of my double-header. There I met up with Jeff Weiss, Laker fan and CEO of the excellent hip-hop-plus blog Passion of the Weiss, for what seemed like the surest home win of my trip thus far.
The (Lakers) Stadium: Walking up to Staples for the second time, it quickly became clear that as nice as the place was during the day, it was really meant to be seen at night — the whole thing was lit beautifully, making it shine like the beacon of sports glitz and glamor that it really was. And even moreso, it was meant to be seen with this kind of crowd — whereas at the Clippers game, I was able to walk right in like I was checking into a hotel, there were lines out of every corner for the Lakers, closer to a sort of gala event. Maybe it was just the circumstances at the event, but it certainly seemed like there was a different caliber of fan in attendance, too — at the very least, there were a lot of good-looking girls in Kobe Bryant jerseys. (You’ll get there soon enough, Blake Griffin.)
And even from our seats way up in Section 304 (Row 11!), the Lakers’ court is still a stunner. It might be the single prettiest home court I’ve seen thusfar — probably helped a good deal by the iconic status of its logo, but man, that purple and gold combination on the shiny hardwood under the lights … it just works so much better than it should. The Lakers’ also had by far the coolest team intro, with that shrouded video projection at center-court. I’d seen it on TV during the playoffs, but I figured that it was just a function of being the first home game of the Finals. That they still go through the entire routine even for a Sunday night game against the Pacers is pretty cool. I still like the Clippers dancers better, though.
The (Lakers) Game: I’ll admit that I wasn’t paying as close attention to the game this time around — hadn’t seen Jeff in a few years, and we spent most of the first half catching up. Things seemed pretty close through the first half, so I just checked in intermittently, waiting for the Lakers to begin to pull away. Instead, after halftime, it was the Pacers that started to get a little separation — much to the surprise of the Staples crowd. As the clock continued to tick on to the fourth quarter and the Pacers continued to lead, it still seemed like the Lakers were kind of biding their time, though you really started to wonder what was taking them so long, and if they were going to complete their comeback once started.
At the very least, though, I was glad to get a fully representative Kobe Bryant performance at Staples. Kobe had an efficient 18 points by the end of the first half on his usual array of pull-ups, fadeaways and swooping lay-ups, but somewhere towards the end of the end of the third quarter, he decided (not entirely inaccurately, to be fair) that it was time for full-on takeover mode, and he started jacking jumpers with impunity just about every time up. It was a quintessential Kobe half — alternately enthralling, frustrating, inspiring and heartbreaking. When he finally hit a three to push his point total over 40 for the game, Jeff and I joked “Great! Now we can actually go and try to win the game now!” (Pau ended up with maybe three touches the entire half.)
But, largely thanks to Kobe (who ended with 41 on 14-33 shooting), the Lakers cut the lead to three with just a half-minute left. On the Lakes’ final possession, the Pacers left the Mamba unconscionably open for a game-tying top-of-the-arc three, which somehow rimmed out. Kobe got another look well beyond the arc, but it was too little too late, and the Pacers got the win, 95-92. If you asked me how exactly the Pacers escaped with the win, I don’t think I could give you much of an explanation, but lo and behold, the home teams moved to an absolutely insane 3-11 for my trip.
The (Lakers) Fans: For two quarters, outside of Byron, the fan sitting directly in front of me (who tried repeatedly to get chants started, without even the slightest hint of support from the rest of our section), the place was almost entirely silent. “I can’t believe how quiet this place is,” Jeff said, though he admitted that he wasn’t exactly adding to the noise pollution itself. It was like the crowd so expected the Lakers to dispatch the Pacers without friction that any success LA had was taken as a given, and no success that Indiana had was taken seriously. It wasn’t until the third quarter, when the Pacers really started to prove that they deserved at least a little bit of attention, that the fans kind of came to life, trying to stir the Lakers to success with some elbow-in-the-side applause during a lag halfway through the quarter.
It’s hard to really blame the Laker fans for their arrogance, given the three straight Finals appearances, the two straight championships and the fact that most of them seem to believe (perhaps rightly) that this might be the best team the Lakers have fielded in their current run. “I like them better,” said a fan named Carlos when I asked him to compare this team to last year’s, “The bench is a lot deeper with Blake and Barnes.” Though there was still faith in Kobe as the team’s first option, most believed that Pau was quickly coming up as being of equal importance. “He’s a different player, he’s a tougher player,” said Byron. “Every ball goes to Gasol right now,” pointed out Carlos, though that certainly became less true in the game’s second half. “I think it’s always gonna be Kobe [as the team's first option], on a superficial level,” said Jeff. “Pau’s the guy they really depend on. He never really has a bad game.”
Of course, much of the discussion was about the Lakers’ most recently-developed weapon, Shannon Brown. Carlos even answered Brown when I asked about who the team’s MVP was this year. “To tell you the truth, I had little respect for Shannon Brown, thought all he was one skill, as a dunker,” said Carlos. “I think he put in a lot of work in the off-season.” Byron was similarly surprised by Brown’s rapid improvement. “His defense is better, and his offense is better,” said Byron. “He brings an x-factor to the game.” And as for the fanbase itself, apparently, it’s still on the rise. “They’ve been more packed,” Carlos said of the crowds at Staples this year. “People are converting to Lakers fans by the second. I think there’s more Lakers fans than babies being born.” (I’d like to see the numbers on that, actually.)
Most Popular Jerseys: Some Gasols and Browns, but Kobe still rules the roost. Not much consistency with the retros, though maybe a couple more Magic Johnsons than any others. (Some guy wearing a Nick Van Exel throwback was my favorite.)
Also Worth Noting: I haven’t heard many “M! V! P!” chants throughout my journey so far — a combination of me not having passed through the teams for a lot of the likely MVP hopefuls (LeBron, Durant, Turkoglu) and it being too early in the season for that distinction to be heaped on anyone who hasn’t already earned it in the past. But I thought for sure that Kobe would be getting the chant at Staples based on lifetime achievement. Through the third quarter, though, the crowd was still so alternately stunned and unimpressed that they brought their dead quiet to the foul line, where Kobe shot in silence. That is, until the end of the quarter, when Kobe drilled a three back-to-back with a layup and-one, which seemed to wake up the crowd. As he took the line to convert his three-point play (he missed), the crowd finally serenaded him, full-force. Staples Center: Where you have to earn your “M! V! P!” chant every night.
Celebrities in Attendance: There must have been more, but the only ones I saw shown over the Jumbo were Anthony Kiedis and Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers, as “Aeroplane” played in the bacgkround. (Jeff called it my “L.A. Moment of Zen.”)
Swag Acquired: Got a black Kobe #24 t-shirt. Probably my favorite player in the game, but I wasn’t quite ready to take the plunge on a $90 jersey. Another one to piss my roommates off, anyway.
Sirius / XM Jam of the Day:
Guided By Voices – “Non-Absorbing.” Still on sabbatical from the XM, so enjoy this little lo-fi 90s nugget. Indie bands don’t usually get their greatest hits sets right, but GBV’s Human Amusements at Hourly Rates is one of the purely funnest single-disc comps the genre ever produced.
Done with the West Coast. Headed up to Utah for what is sure to be a very different atmosphere (from both Staples crowds) at Energy Solutions Arena on Wednesday. See you there.