One of the most hyped teams in NBA history fell exhaustedly into the playoffs Wednesday.
Appropriately, it happened with only three hours left in the season. Fittingly, it was clinched when they were just standing around.
Ten minutes before the start of their game with the Houston Rockets, the Lakers learned that the Utah Jazz had lost in Memphis, meaning the Lakers were guaranteed the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.
There was no announcement. There was no confetti. There was only the live broadcast of the final seconds of Utah’s loss blaring on the giant Staples Center scoreboard. Their ticket was punched by the image of Al Jefferson with his face buried in his hands.
The Lakers, in the middle of their pregame warmups, barely stirred. The fans, engaged in their pregame texting, barely cheered. Only one person seemed immediately and genuinely excited. You can probably guess.
“And to think some said we wouldn’t make it,” tweeted Kobe Bryant, who added the hashtags #keepcalm, #believe, #makeplayoffs, and #makehistory.
The Lakers certainly would make some sort of history simply by getting out of the first round, where their depleted and underachieving team will now play the West’s second-seeded San Antonio Spurs.
This matchup was set later Wednesday when, needing a victory to avoid the more difficult Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers made just enough plays to beat the younger and jittery Rockets, 99-95, in overtime.
Not that it was easy or pretty. The Lakers were moments from winning in regulation when Chandler Parsons found himself open long enough to sink a line-drive three-pointer at the buzzer. The Lakers then survived the overtime with great defense, leading to one of the oddest reactions to one of the oddest proud announcements in Lakers history.
“The Lakers are the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs,” intoned public-address announcer Lawrence Tanter, and the crowd roared, and, well, really?
Bryant was earlier Twitter gloating because he predicted a playoff berth long before he suffered his season-ending Achilles’ tendon tear, but, really, should a prediction have even been necessary?
When the season started, this was supposed to be a team destined for at least the NBA Finals. In the summer they added future Hall of Famers Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to a team that already had Bryant and Pau Gasol. It was one of the greatest rosters eve assembled.
Then the late great owner Jerry Buss’ prostate cancer worsened, and the Lakers’ impatience became panic, and Coach Mike Brown was fired after just five games. With Jim Buss using his ego instead of brains, Phil Jackson was snubbed and Mike D’Antoni was hired, thus creating a match made in seventh place.
The Lakers will blame this season’s troubles on the rash of injuries, but the real problem was the Grade 3 separation between the coach’s philosophy and the players’ abilities.
D’Antoni wanted to run, yet the Lakers were too big and creaky to run. D’Antoni didn’t preach defense, and the Lakers used that excuse to ignore it.
Would the greatest coach in NBA history have figured out a better way? Wouldn’t you have liked to see Jackson get a chance?
Despite a brilliant resurgence by Bryant, the most memorable Staples Center chant was, “We want Phil.” Despite the eventual healing of Howard’s back, his most compelling moments were when he complained about not having enough touches.
D’Antoni decided that Gasol couldn’t play at the same time as Howard. Then D’Antoni decided that he could.
Nash was hurt for so long, his return was anticipated as if he was a sort of savior. Except when he played, he was so lost in this aimless and confused offense, you hardly knew he was there.
Bryant played so many minutes in attempting to drag this team out of the muck, his body finally broke in the final moments of a game last week.
By Wednesday night, the season had been completely turned on its head.
Just ask Steve Blake. Back in the fall, Blake was fined for yelling back at a prominent but heckling season-ticket holder. On Wednesday, Blake was the toast of the building with his Lakers career-high 24 points and the clinching free throws.
“Everybody’s wondering how long we can sustain this, whether we can actually win without Kobe,” said Antawn Jamison said late Wednesday night. “Well, we believe.”
It’s Blake’s team now. It’s Howard’s team. It’s Gasol’s team. It’s not yet, however, destiny’s team, unless destiny has one heck of a sense of humor.