(AP Photo/Hector Mata)

Wow. It finally happened. After obsessively following the NBA from Australia for most of the last 20 years, including a trip to the US in ‘04 where I just missed the postseason, I finally saw my first NBA game in the flesh. It was very surreal, and I don’t think you can really appreciate the experience unless you’ve been an international fan of the NBA for as long as I have. Very surreal and a bit weird, for several reasons.

1. It was night time. For my entire life, live NBA action has always equated to a morning or lunchtime spent in front of the TV. By the time your afternoon roles around, the NBA is finished. I was getting geared up for the Lakers v Rockets game all day – Downunder you don’t really build that sense of anticipation, you can’t, it’s the start of your day.

2. I watched a live game and didn’t have to put up with Marv Albert or Marc Jackson or Charles Barkley or Reggie Miller or any broadcaster getting in my ear. There was no intro, no special comments, no throwing back to the studio. All I could hear was the crowd and the players. I know I’m pointing out the blatantly obvious here, but after watching a sport for 20 years only on the TV, you kind of get used to hearing the same cliché phrases and tedious analysis after every play, every quarter, every half. You become conditioned to being force-fed stats and details about player matchups, and you spend just as much time pondering/debating the TV analysts ramblings as much as the game itself. But tonight I was free – it’s like someone unplugged me from the Borg Collective and I could hear my own thoughts. And I prefer it this way.

3. On several occasions I found myself looking up at the big screen for a box-score – how many assists did Kobe have? How many minutes has Sasha played so far? What percentage are the Lakers shooting? Just give me some freaken stats!! Following the NBA from afar normally means you have the Internet at your fingertips or at least the TV commentators to help you, so you don’t waste much time asking these questions. But tonight, during the game, I felt naked without my play-by-play in front of me, without the box-score and the shooting chart. And that’s how it should be. You see the game for what it is. Sure you wonder about the stats, you’d like to know if Scola has pulled down as many boards as you think he has, or if D-Fish has racked up the 4 or 5 steals you counted, but ultimately you don’t care. You’re riding the rhythm of a live game, you feel the crowd’s pulse rising and falling with every Laker turnover or Kobe three, your audio and visual senses are overloaded with the action unfolding just meters away. Stats all of a sudden seem very unimportant.

4. The physicality of it. I always knew the NBA was a far more physical sport than most people realized, but I honestly was not expecting it to be like this. You don’t get a good sense for the dimensions of the court and the players on the tele. The one thing that really struck me tonight was how small the court seems, and how 10 big dudes manage to fit in that quarter-court space while running around at full speed.  You can’t fit that many big dudes in an area that small without them bumping and banging into each other, and it happens a lot. Things tend to be more physical away from the ball, and that is harder to follow on the TV, so you get a much better appreciation being at the game. Of course tonight was a particularly testy encounter – there were three technical fouls, D-Fish and Brooks were at each other’s throats for most of the game, and Ron Artest is a psycho – but it only made it more entertaining.

5. Dikembe Mutumbo. The first time I saw Dikembe was on a double-spread add for his shoes – “Man does not fly in the house of Mutumbo”. That was like 17 years go. Tonight I saw him playing basketball, still. Dikembe is one of the last remaining relics from the NBA era that spawned the interest of so many Australians (including myself) back in the early nineties. So it was kinda nice to see him there tonight, a fossilized reminder that the game I was watching was the same game I discovered all those years ago.

On to the game itself. I arrived an hour and a half before tip off and spent a fair amount of time watching Andrew Bynum do his pre-game workout. He looked in pretty good shape. He was doing his post drills and some shooting, nothing too explosive, but he did run a couple of full court sprints. He wasn’t moving at full speed and strength, but it did give me confidence that he will indeed be back for the playoffs. I read Bynum’s comments the other day saying he would return during the regular season, and I was skeptical to say the least especially after what happened last year. But watching him today I’d say that is a fair assessment.

The Lakers defense impressed me early and they capitalized on a very lazy looking Houston team. But the Rockets just took a little longer to get their head in the game, and by quarter-end it was a wrestle. Scola was killing the Lakers inside and I admit I didn’t know his offensive game was so polished – he looked like a poor man’s Pau Gasol for most of this game. Apart from Brooks (who couldn’t hit a shot) the Rockets entire starting line up played extremely well, I honestly don’t think they could have played better. It was their bench that let them down; Lowry and Von Wafer were getting to the hoop but nothing would drop (those two went 3-13 combined), Hayes and Barry also contributing very little.

The Lakers bench was by no means stellar, and the Rockets only threatened when Kobe, Gasol and Odom were resting. This is becoming a real problem for the Lakers – their bench looks sick. Sasha Vujacic, who one year ago was arguably most dangerous bench shooter in the league, spent 39 minutes of this game on the bench staring blankly into space after failing to sink a shot during the other 9 minutes. Jordan Farmar who Kobe once called the “engine” of their bench, has shot 5-22 over his last five games. The engine is sputtering. This isn’t such a huge problem going into the playoffs – its a fact that starters play more minutes in the post season. But Sasha and Jordan and Luke need to have some big games over the final remaining games, for their own confidence more than anything else.

And then there was Kobe. For the past six years or so, Kobe has probably been my favorite non-Pistons player in the league. “Favorite” isn’t really the right word – it’s more of a deep appreciation for his skills and his mentality. These last six years just so happened to coincide with Kobe transforming from a Laker great (which he already was after winning three titles with Shaq) to arguably the greatest scorer of all time, an MVP and a true leader. More than anyone else tonight, he was the one guy I was watching closely, and it was an absolute treat. Kobe seems to be getting overlooked defensively thanks to the better numbers of Wade and Lebron this season, but watching him tonight reminded me why he is a six-time All Defensive First teamer. Kobe is a hound. There were so many tipped balls and deflections he made that won’t get captured on the stat-sheet. Offensively he picked his spots tonight but broke loose when it mattered. His back-to-back threes in the fourth won the game for the Lakers, plain and simple. Take away those shots and the Rockets were right in the game. After watching Kobe hit clutch shot after clutch shot the last decade, it was nice of him to put on a little crunch-time performance for me in my first NBA game. Thanks Kobe.

It still hasn’t quite sunk in. I’ve been to an NBA game. Finally. The only thing that might top this is when I get to watch my Pistons in a week’s time. It’s going to be an amazing couple of weeks, but then again, the NBA is supposedly where that happens.

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