The offseason acquisitions of All-Star center Dwight Howard and All-Star point guard Steve Nash paired with All-Stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol were supposed to give the Los Angeles Lakers a smooth flight to the NBA Finals. Instead, the season was rife with the turbulence you would expect from a Hollywood airplane thriller—the firing of head coach Mike Brown five games into the season and subsequent hiring of Mike D’Antoni, changes in offensive and defensive philosophies, on-court adjustments, trade rumors, purported media fabrications of infighting and a spate of injuries.
Thankfully, a tumultuous first half of the season was followed by a stronger showing after the All-Star break. Though the Lakers were dealt with what could have been their deathblow, a season-ending Achilles injury to Bryant a week ago, they remained resilient in the final two games of the regular season as they fought for playoff contention—a possible sixth seed, seventh seed, eighth seed or no seed.
A playoff berth boiled down to last Wednesday’s regular season finale for the NBA. After a precursory Memphis Grizzlies win over the Utah Jazz corroborated with Los Angeles’ 99-95 overtime victory against the Houston Rockets, the Lakers found themselves situated in the seventh seed of the Western Conference playoff landscape.
It wasn’t the intended trajectory into the postseason, but the Lakers will take it either way.
“Where we were 20 or 30 games ago, seven (seed) is pretty good from where we were,” said Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni, who faced unrelenting scrutiny all season. “We shouldn’t have been in that spot in the first place, so it’s our fault, but at the same time, there’s no difference between eight, seven, six and five—you don’t have home court and it’s just the way it is.”
Many of the Lakers in the locker room following the overtime victory used the season finale against the Rockets as the perfect illustration of what type of season it has been. The Lakers found themselves down by as many as 11 in the third quarter, but clawed back and closed out in overtime.
That sequence sounds all too familiar to the Lakers—falling behind, clawing back and closing out—a microcosm of the 2012-13 season. Their record at the All-Star break was 25-29, but a strong 20-8 finish gave way to their final 45-37 regular season showing.
“It pretty much sums up the whole season,” said Lakers forward Antawn Jamison. “We went through a whole lot of adversity, but the character this team showed—we stayed positive, we played together as a team offensively, we got it going a little bit in the second half, but the one thing we really needed to count on was being consistent defensively.”
This year, every member of the Lakers experienced their own respective quandaries that collectively added to the frantic season. In the end, however, it appears that it only brought them closer together.
Point guard Steve Blake, who led the Lakers in scoring Wednesday night with 24 points, knows all about personal difficulties. Following a peculiar offseason injury from stepping on a parking lot spike strip, a $25,000 fine after yelling at a fan and an abdominal injury during the season, he is playing some of the best basketball of his career.
“It hasn’t been easy,” said Blake, who averaged 15.2 points, five assists and 5.4 rebounds the last five regular season games. “It’s been crazy all year. We’re playing together like a family.”
In addition to the flack and vitriol Coach D’Antoni received, Howard’s portions of criticism were also sizeable. His playful mannerisms and comedic gesticulations contrasted Bryant’s competitive fortitude, which made pundits question whether his abilities to be the team’s future leader were just as dubious as his offseason motives.
However, his increased health and refocused efforts on the defensive end have paid dividends for the Lakers. The Lakers’ defense held an offensively productive Rockets team to under 100 points, including four blocks from Howard.
Following the game, Howard stated that all the obstacles this season only strengthened the team’s resolve.
“Everybody counted us out,” said Howard. “But one thing I told the guys tonight was that we’ve been through so much as a team this year, from injuries to rumors and everything that has happened. It could have made us separate, but we stayed strong, stayed together and we won for each other tonight.”
Regardless of whether it was a turbulent flight with an equally chaotic landing, all the Lakers care about at this juncture is that their championship hopes are still alive. According to Howard, a hard-fought regular season that yielded a playoff berth should beget an even harder fought postseason with an eye on a bigger prize.
“We’re happy we’re in the playoffs,” said Howard. “But we’re not done yet.”
The Lakers’ work resumes on Sunday when they face the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. The Spurs hold the 2-1 regular season advantage over the Lakers, but all three games have been decided by only an average of 3.3 points.
Los Angeles is confident they can encapsulate the doggedness and determination they displayed after the All-Star break and apply it to the playoffs.
“We will continue with the spirit that we’ve been playing with,” said Gasol. “Try to continue and carry the momentum into the playoffs.”
Ben Hernandez Jr.
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