Kobe Bryant will lead them, it seems, however it goes.
The most trying regular season of his career concluded Wednesday night with a fade-away three-point shot that beat the Portland Trail Blazers at the end of two overtimes, and the Lakers became Pacific Division champions, seeded second in the Western Conference playoffs.
Bryant's shot, two five-minute periods after his off-balance shot near the regulation buzzer brought the first overtime, beat the Trail Blazers, 105-104, at the Rose Garden and set up a best-of-seven series against the Houston Rockets.
Game 1 is Saturday at Staples Center. The Lakers and Rockets split four regular-season games, the Lakers winning the final two.
A night after his 45 points drove them against the Golden State Warriors, Bryant scored 37 points. With one second left in the second overtime, he took an inbounds pass from Gary Payton just left of the top of the arc, turned and pushed a jumper over Theo Ratliff's fingertips. As the buzzer sounded, the shot fell, and Bryant raced down the floor, pointing to the crowd.
"We had a miraculous win, no doubt about it," Laker Coach Phil Jackson said.
Bryant left without addressing the media for a second consecutive day.
"It was a great shot by the young fellow, Kobe," Shaquille O'Neal said. "He told us, 'Set me a good pick and we're going home.' This is how a great player, a great confident guy makes a shot.
"It's funny, after all the stuff we went through this year, we still win the Pacific Division. We're OK, because this is the moment we've been waiting for."
The Lakers finished 56-26, a game ahead of the Sacramento Kings, who lost at Golden State near the end of the Lakers' first overtime period in Portland.
Although the Lakers clinched their third division title in the Jackson era, it came with some concern.
Karl Malone limped from the floor, the kind of thing he hardly ever did in 18 seasons in Utah, but has made a habit of in one season in Los Angeles. Devean George strained his calf and Derek Fisher strained his groin.
On the final day of the regular season, three days before the Lakers open the postseason, Malone sprained his right ankle near the end of the first half and did not play the second.
He predicted he'd play Saturday against the Rockets, as he walked gingerly from the locker room.
"I'll be all right, man," he said over his shoulder.
O'Neal had 25 points and 14 rebounds and fouled out 1:53 into the second overtime. He missed seven of eight free-throw attempts, continuing a late-season trend, an issue Jackson addressed with him afterward.
The Lakers did not hold their first lead until late in the fourth quarter, when Bryant scored 12 points. The last three came on a remarkable twisting 25-footer from straight on, Ruben Patterson on his hip, 1.1 seconds on the clock. It swished, and Patterson grinned, and Bryant grinned back at him.
The injuries meant more time for Slava Medvedenko at power forward and Luke Walton at small forward, though Jackson tended toward Bryant at small forward and Fisher and Gary Payton in the backcourt.
So, the Lakers go to the playoffs undermanned and unpredictable, exactly how they spent much of the six months before them.
Nine months after they rebuilt, going on six months since they started all of this, the Lakers reached the end of their regular season, the start of the playoffs, as flawed as ever.
It was only an hour or so before Wednesday night's game, the last of 82 for the Lakers, and Malone wondered what more could happen to them.
His presumption was that the Lakers had seen the worst of it, and he was nearly off the floor at the end of the second quarter when he took an offensive rebound and landed on the toe of Trail Blazer Zach Randolph.
He winced and hopped from the floor, through the tunnel toward the locker room, nodding to trainer Gary Vitti as he left. Vitti chased after him.
Soon, Vitti would be busy with George and Fisher as well, with the playoffs upon them all.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Another Mr. Clutch
Twice in crunch time, guard Kobe Bryant made three-point baskets for the Lakers in a 105-104 double-overtime victory over Portland.
TRAIL BLAZERS LEAD, 87-84
0:01, FOURTH QUARTER
* Bryant makes an off-balance 26-foot three-pointer from the top of the key over Ruben Patterson with one second left to tie the score.
TRAIL BLAZERS LEAD, 104-102
0:01, SECOND OVERTIME
* Bryant makes a 26-foot fadeaway over Theo Ratliff from the left wing off an inbounds pass at the buzzer to give the Lakers the Pacific Division title.