Thursday, April 18, 2013

After All the Scares, Lakers Survive to See Playoffs

It has been an exasperating, up-and-down, trying season and one that caused panic and anxiety throughout L.A., where basketball is the pride and joy of the community, symbolizing all what’s charming about the entertainment capital of the world. You could almost sense the sign of relief when the Los Angeles Lakers survived a 99-95 overtime win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night in their building, on their home floor and in front of their tense crowd.

As nervous as these fans have been, as queasy as they were watching these Lakers painfully drop against lackluster teams throughout the season, they hung in and witnessed a different group of guys who turned it on late in the season to notch a fifth consecutive victory. By winning the final game of the regular season, to end one of the most dismal and disappointing seasons, the Lakers earned a first-round playoff series against San Antonio and avoided Oklahoma City, the top-seeded team in the Western Conference and a horrifying matchup for an older and short-handed Lakers unit.

It would have been one of the biggest disappointments in the history of the NBA if the Lakers were to miss the playoffs. It could have been quite embarrassing for the Lakers, considering all the talent and star power they acquired during the offseason. It took another kind of dominant, laborious effort from a group that was determined, relentless and persistent in order to clinch a playoff berth. In the playoffs, and a long, long way to go, the Lakers match up well with the Spurs.

It was a great fear, a great possibility that the Lakers wouldn’t make the NBA playoffs, but through all the scares, suffering and nightmares, they managed to reach their ultimate goal with help from Memphis on the night when the Lakers earned the seventh seed by beating the Rockets. The Lakers were in a fight with Utah for the West’s final spot, but the Grizzlies defeated the Jazz as the Lakers secured the final playoff berth. There is no equating late momentum to postseason success, but the Lakers can continue to piece together victories.

Entering these playoffs, with an abundance of confidence and staying power, the Lakers have much to feel good about. So it’s a series when the Lakers are underdogs, even when they are loaded with otherworldly talent. That’s what happens when a top-notched team underachieves and barely survives the regular season, with star players suffering injuries that hinder a contender from posing a challenge for its oppositions in the West.

When the season started, the Lakers were one of the most hyped teams and were the clear favorite to advance on to the NBA Finals. When the season began miserably, the Lakers were a riddle and fans went into panic mode, after the team’s 0-3 start that alarmed Kobe Bryant and the rest of the gang. When the season ended on a high note, after all the horror nights at Staples Center, the Lakers came together, acted with a sense of urgency and found the formula to winning.

The moment the season began for those wearing purple and gold, they were doomed to a dreary stretch of failures, under a fired Mike Brown. Then came Mike D’Antoni to replace Brown a few days after the team’s bungling of Phil Jackson’s return in mid-November. The blame laid with the Buss family for their failure to hire Jackson. And so they picked D’Antoni over an 11-time NBA champion, over someone who brought five championships to the Lakers and over someone whose familiarity and relationship with the organization ideally suited the team’s personality. But we all know too well that Phil and Jim didn’t get along.

Buss is simply not one of the best owners, and sometimes we wonder about his business acumen. He’s made faulty trades since taking over the personnel decisions in 2005. He’s made bad choices with coaches twice by hiring Brown over Brian Shaw and then hiring D’Antoni over Phil. He failed to satisfy a disillusioned fan base and foolishly made the worst draft picks. He couldn’t put his ego aside and believed D’Antoni would run an offense better fitted for Steve Nash.

All season, the Lakers, who were revamped last summer, were still forlorn and struggling to win games. They were an utter disaster and were very painful to bear or watch, incapable of meeting expectations, albeit they were loaded with talent and had maybe too many players with swollen egos. It’s just a start on what could be a watchable and fun playoff as the Lakers, in all considering, are playing stupendous defense, which allowed the team to play its best basketball without Bryant’s services.

There’d be enough talk about the Lakers not being the juggernaut they were believed to be. There’s talent everywhere on this team, maybe not as much since Bryant went down with a season-ending injury. But what matters, what really matters, is whether the Lakers can thrive without him. The Lakers will be without Bryant, their main character and clutch performer. His season ended in anguish when he ruptured his Achilles tendon, having to miss the rest of the season, consult with his teammates and watch painfully. Bryant is 34 years old, the Lakers star, and because he was the catalyst and the fiercest scorer on earth, he’s a loss for the team but they’ve played effectively without him late in the season.

The world-famous franchise, one that has a history of championships and a list of all-time stars and legends, will have the weight of that postseason run that everyone anticipated — although the Lakers have struggled through injuries and even playoff positioning. It was in the summer that the Buss family added All-Star Dwight Howard and Nash to the team, joining a roster that already had Bryant and Pau Gasol. The problem here is not a plethora of injuries but the team’s inability to match the speed of younger and fresher legs, along with D’Antoni’s coaching methods. He doesn’t realize that this Lakers team cannot run. He doesn’t emphasize the significance of defense, but he was Buss’ guy.

All things considered, the Lakers like what they saw of Nash, who was injured for a long time. So, they’d watch and stand around as Bryant put on his Kobe Lakeshow spectacles. He might have worn down, mentally and physically, and late in the season he endured pain and played so many minutes to carry this lifeless team. By many accounts, Steve Blake rescued the Lakers on Wednesday, scoring a career-high 24 points. He was the streakiest, hottest scorer in the building, knocking down his 3-point shots and free throws.

More than anyone, even Blake, Gasol is capable of scoring and bouncing or delivering a pass to his teammates. You can cheer for Gasol. He is, mainly, producing without Kobe on the floor and had his second triple-double this month, finishing with 17 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists. Then, his counterpart, Dwight Howard, became the youngest player in NBA history to collect 9,000 rebounds.

If the Lakers are to beat the Spurs as everybody is ruling them out, they can indubitably survive in these playoffs. There’s no telling how long, but as of right now, the Lakers are alive.