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Duhatschek: Lakers still a work in progress

Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash

LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS

Eventually, these Los Angeles Lakers may start to paint Picassos as a group. They do, after all, have a team created in NBA luxury-tax heaven, with a skilled, experienced starting five consisting of Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. Three of them, according to Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, will be sure-fire Hall Of Famers.

But for now, after a 0-8 pre-season, the Lakers are also 0-1 in the NBA regular season, and still drawing up their offence in bright Crayolas. These are clearly early days, and one thing you can say for sure.

Showtime, it isn't. Not yet anyway.

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Playing a Mavericks team missing Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman, or most of their inside presence, the hometown Lakers nevertheless fell by a 99-91 count Tuesday in a game that was never really in doubt.

How bad was the NBA regular-season opener for the Lakers?

Nash hit a three-pointer to open the scoring, but made just one field goal in the rest of the first half and finished with just seven points. His second-quarter turnover – to the Mavs' Rodrique Beaubois – gave Dallas its first lead 37-35. Dallas held a two-point edge at the half, extended it to eight after three quarters and never let the Lakers get back in the game. The Staples Centre crowd, so enthusiastic amid all the pre-game hype, kept waiting for the Lakers to go on a roll.

Never happened.

"Obviously, it was a disappointing night for us," said Nash, nearly an hour after the game had ended and just before they boarded a charter flight for Portland and Game 2 of the NBA season Wednesday night. "We have high expectations and tonight, we didn't play well, so ...

"Regardless of what it was tonight, it wasn't good enough."

No, it wasn't good enough by any measure.

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Nash played 34 minutes and didn't have a great night, offensively or defensively. Nor, for that matter, did Howard, who was just three-for-14 from the free-throw line. His back-up Jordan Hill was an equally ugly one-for-six. Howard will never hit free throws as effortlessly as Nash or Kobe Bryant, but if he continues to lob up bricks, the old Hack a Shaq era will be back with a vengeance. Statistically, Howard's futility at the line echoed some of the worst moments of the Shaquille O'Neal era. He was the first Laker to shoot 25 per cent or less, on a minimum of 10 free-throw attempts, since O'Neal went 2-13 back in 2004.

By contrast, neither Nash nor Bryant – two players who are usually money in the bank from that range – got to the line at all.

"We're a little out of sync for sure," said Nash. "Like we've been saying all of camp, this is a work in progress. We've got a lot of new players, a new offence. We're trying to find a rhythm and a timing, and get an understanding for multiple sets so, it's a struggle at times out there for us. But we're working at it every day. We've covered a lot of ground. Everyone's buying in and continuing to put the time in. So we've got to think it's going to turn around for us."

By adding Nash and Howard, the Lakers figure to challenge again in the NBA's Western Conference, after two successive second-round playoff exits. But the main man will continue to be Bryant, who'd been hobbled by foot injuries in the exhibition season, and as late as Tuesday morning's shoot around, described himself as only 85 per cent certain to play.

Bryant started, and finished with 22 points on an 11-for-14 shooting night in 35 minutes of action.

Meanwhile, Robert Sacre – the rookie centre from Vancouver, via Gonzaga University – didn't get into the game. He is the No. 3 centre behind Howard and Hill and likely won't see a lot of action unless injuries limit either of the two players playing ahead of him.

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Pre-season was supposed to be a chance for the Lakers to work out the kinks in their new Princeton offence. But Bryant missed a lot of action, largely because of a foot injury, and Howard is recovering from back surgery earlier in the summer.

Nash and coach Mike Brown were constantly consulting on the sidelines, during breaks in the action.

Nash is simply used to having the ball in his hands more than he did Tuesday night.

"We're running, by NBA standards, a fairly untraditional set to a lot of guys on offence, so it's going to take us time," said Nash. "We've practiced a lot with everybody. We've had some exhibition games. But I think it's complex enough and takes cohesion and understanding from each guy that we just don't have yet. But we've shown glimpses and we've bought in and we're working at it and it'll get better. It's just right now is early, so we've got to find ways to win games while we figure this offence out and get a little joy into it."

The game began with the usual first-night pomp and circumstance, featuring an impressive video show on the Jumbotron and Laker girls on the floor. Bryant took microphone in hand to welcome the fans and promised them a good show. Nash and Howard bios were aired on the Jumbotron, Howard making a reference to a possible 17th championship for the Lakers' team. By the time it was over, the air has seeped badly out of the balloon – and the search for explanations was on.

"The biggest thing for us is, there's just a lot of newness," said Nash. "At some point, everybody's gotta just say, it's still the game of basketball. We can still box out. We can still work together offensively, and when the offence comes around, it comes around. But we've got to try and win some games defensively and win some games in different ways while we figure this thing out."

So concern? Yes. Panic? No. And Nash was still ultra positive about the experience, if not the final result.

"It was a pleasure to have my first game as a Laker at the Staples Centre. The crowd's been unbelievable to me, not just here tonight, but in the city. I'm loving living here and playing for this franchise, but the bottom line is, I came here to win ball games and we haven't. But we'll come around. We've got to continue to believe in ourselves and keep working and find some cohesion in the offence, and frankly, get better defensively. We're expecting to be much better defensively than we were today."

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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