LOS ANGELES -- Last week, before the Lakers' already nightmarish season seemingly veered completely off the tracks with Kobe Bryant's ruptured Achilles tendon, Bryant was still confident that the Lakers wouldn’t just make the playoffs but that they could win a championship.
As he sat in front of his locker following the media scrum he said, “Look at what the Kings did last year. They got into the playoffs as the eight seed and won the Stanley Cup. We’re trying to do the same thing.”
Bryant attended a number of the Los Angeles Kings' playoff games with his daughters during their magical and improbable run to the Stanley Cup last summer and didn’t understand why it couldn’t be duplicated on the basketball court this summer.
“There’s no reason we can’t do it,” Bryant said. “Everything resets in the playoffs.”
Of course, that was before Bryant was lost for the season and we found out that Steve Nash's assortment of injuries weren’t just day-to-day bad but taking-two-epidurals-just-to-practice bad. Nevertheless, Bryant’s stance doesn’t change and neither does the Lakers’ goal heading into the playoffs.
After the Lakers clinched a playoff berth that Bryant promised would happen back when the Lakers were well below .500, he tweeted, “And to think some said we wouldn’t make it.. #keepcalm #believe #playoffs now #makehistory”
He later tweeted, “Playoff promise fulfilled #ontothenext”
It doesn’t make sense that the Lakers will be entering the playoffs, without Bryant and possibly without Nash, as confident as they’ve been all season. But that’s exactly the way the Lakers were feeling after their 99-95 overtime win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday to clinch the seventh seed and a first round match-up against the San Antonio Spurs which begins on Sunday.
They are finally moving the ball the way Mike D’Antoni envisioned they could. They are finally playing defense with the kind of intensity that Dwight Howard hoped they would. And they are playing inside-out and relying on their bigs as Pau Gasol and Howard have pleaded for since November.
Gasol had his second triple-double in three games on Wednesday, putting up 17 points, 11 assists and 20 rebounds. Howard added 16 points and 18 rebounds after putting up 26 and 17 in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs last Sunday.
“Right now, they are the two guys that really run the ship and we have to do everything possible to make things easy for them and for them not to have to work as hard on both ends of the floor,” Antawn Jamison said. “So collectively, offensively, we have to get some movement. You have to have energy from guys coming off the bench.”
Ah, that’s right; the Lakers actually use their bench now, albeit out of necessity. Jamison scored 16 points and grabbed 4 rebounds on Wednesday while Darius Morris, who was at the end of the bench last week, came in and added 5 points and 2 assists.
No one has benefited more from the Lakers’ newfound identity than Steve Blake who had 24 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds on Wednesday night. In his last two games, Blake has had 47 points, 11 assists and 12 rebounds, garnering the nickname “Blake Mamba” on Twitter.
“It’s been fun the last two games but it’s a total team effort,” Blake said. “We feel really good on the defensive end in our game plan and how focused we are on that end of the floor. And offensively we’re throwing the ball into the post and letting those guys go to work. We throw some pick and rolls here and there and keep their defense off balance.”
It’s understandable to look at the way the Lakers played in their last two games without Bryant, and their last four wins to get into the playoffs, and wonder where that has been all season. How is it that this team has been able to play better at times when one or more of their superstars have been sidelined?
Bryant, Gasol, Howard and Nash have played in only 22 games together this season and in those games, the Lakers have gone only 8-14. When at least one of those players has been sidelined, however, the Lakers are now 37-23.
It’s a statistic that makes sense to D’Antoni as he watches his team move the ball more.
“One of our problems is that everybody wanted to be the guy and we just couldn’t do that,” D’Antoni said. “Now other guys have stepped up and they’ve always been the guy wherever they’ve been.”
The Lakers certainly won’t be expected to upset the Spurs in the first round despite their recent play but anything less than making history will still be a disappointment to a team that began the season with championship aspirations. Even to their head coach, who wasn’t on the team when the season began.
“It’s always a disappointment to get knocked out,” D’Antoni said. “We have ambitions just like everybody else.”
And what are those ambitions?
“To win a championship,” Howard said. “We still want to win number 17.”