LOS ANGELES – Be ready, Kobe Bryant(notes) told Steve Blake(notes). His championship coronation nearly doused in defeat, Bryant walked out of the huddle late Tuesday and welcomed his new teammate to the Los Angeles Lakers with a simple, two-word order.
A couple minutes later, Bryant rifled a pass behind him and into the waiting hands of Blake, positioned perfectly a step behind the 3-point line. Blake elevated and coolly buried the shot. With less than 19 seconds left, it was the difference in the Lakers' 112-110 victory over the Houston Rockets.
On a night he toasted his fifth championship and began his hunt for a sixth, Kobe put his fortune in the hands of a teammate with whom he'd never played a meaningful game. This was no ordinary assist, and Blake knew it.
"It was big of him," Blake said, smiling, "to trust someone new on the court."
It was just one shot, one game, but it's upon moments like these that championships are built. There are Lakers who have gone entire seasons without winning Bryant's trust. Ask Smush Parker(notes) the next time he returns from Russia.
Kobe's competitiveness has swallowed opponents and teammates alike, and his stubbornness is equally unmatched. In Game 7 of last season's Finals, he nearly shot the Lakers out of a title. As he's grown older and his body begins to give way to all those miles, he's had to learn he can't go it alone.
The Lakers have long understood the same, which is why general manager Mitch Kupchak went back to work this summer. He gave Blake a four-year, $16 million contract and picked up a quality perimeter defender (Matt Barnes(notes)) and a veteran center (Theo Ratliff(notes)), both on the cheap. He also re-signed Derek Fisher(notes) and Shannon Brown(notes).
As the Miami Heat assembled their super team with LeBron James(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes), and the Boston Celtics added Jermaine O'Neal(notes) and then Shaquille O'Neal(notes), Kupchak filled in the cracks showing on the Lakers' roster. There's a reason why the Lakers aren't ready to cede this season's title to the Eastern Conference: This team could potentially become their deepest in years.
"This year, we have a little bit better chemistry," Bryant said, "in terms of pieces fitting together off the bench."
Or, as he later said more succinctly: "We have guys that fit."
Translation: They've signed guys who know their roles.
Blake stood idly as the evening began with last season's team members introducing each other while receiving their 2010 championship rings. He then used his performance to show why he might need to be fitted for his own next year. His consecutive 3-pointers at the end of the third quarter reduced what had been an 11-point deficit by more than half.
Brown carried the surge – almost all of which came with Bryant on the bench – into the final quarter. He made four more 3-pointers, a testament, perhaps, to the work he put in over the summer. Already regarded as one of the league's most explosive athletes (Phil Jackson praised his "up-ability"), Brown has tried to address the biggest hole in his game: his shot.
The Lakers will likely continue to lean on their bench as they try to find their health. Bryant is still working his way back from surgery on his right knee and, Jackson said, "searching for that moment where he can light himself up." Andrew Bynum(notes) is recovering from knee surgery and isn't expected back until late November. Fisher, now 36, will need to be preserved as best as possible for the playoffs. And Ron Artest(notes) remains prone to spells of zaniness.
Afterward, Artest stood in a corner of the locker room while filming promos for his upcoming appearance on "Larry King Live," during which he'll reveal plans to sell his championship ring to raise money for charity.
"I may want to keep the box," he said.
The Lakers had reason to laugh. They'd christened their new season with a win. Some 2,600 miles to the northeast, LeBron and the Heat had limped out of Boston with their 400-member media horde trailing them. Someone asked Bryant if he had watched the Celtics' victory. Only a little, he said.
"I don't give two [bleeps] about that," he said.
Bryant had seen enough of Blake and his teammates to know this season held promise. He'd driven into the lane and watched the Rockets collapse on him, leaving Blake alone, and he knew it would happen again. Bryant passed, Blake shot, and Bryant knew something else about his new teammate: "He's not scared of anything. He likes those moments."
Be ready? Next time, Kobe won't even need to ask.