LOS ANGELES -- Earlier this season, Kobe Bryant was asked about the Lakers' roller-coaster season and laughed as though he were being asked about a movie we've all seen countless times and should know the ending to by now.
"The one thing I will say about the Lakers organization is that this is one of those franchises that always seems to land on its feet," he said. "Always seems to make the right choices, always seems to make the right decisions."
It is what has made the Lakers one of the most loved and also one of the most reviled teams in sports.
They're like the guy who walks into a casino and gets 21 when he hits on 18.
It's not fair, but it has happened far too often in the past 65 years to be considered pure luck at this point. When it comes to gambling in this league, the Lakers have been playing with a house advantage for years.
To say that both players were afterthoughts before last week would assume that they were thoughts at all. They were so far down on the bench that Norm Pattiz, a gray-haired Lakers fan who bangs on his rolled-up program near the Lakers' bench during every game, had a better chance of getting in the game.
That all changed April 22, when Hill and Ebanks played critical roles in the Lakers' comeback win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in double overtime, and they were again key contributors on Sunday in the Lakers' 103-88 win over the Denver Nuggets to start the NBA playoffs.
Ebanks, who was the Lakers' leading scorer at halftime with 12 points, finished the game with 12 points and five rebounds in his first playoff start. Ebanks was starting in place of Metta World Peace, who is suspended for the first six games of the playoffs. Hill was the first big man off the Lakers' bench and had 10 points and 10 rebounds in 24 minutes.
"I think he surprised everybody a little bit," Bryant said of Hill. "But he just fits. He hasn't had to adjust to anything or change anything. He's just a piece that fits seamlessly into what we try to do."
Before the game against Oklahoma City, Hill had played a total of 18 minutes in 21 games since the Houston Rockets traded him to the Lakers for Derek Fisher on March 15. Hill didn't even play in 16 of those games. Meanwhile, Ebanks, after starting the season at small forward ahead of World Peace and Matt Barnes on the depth chart, didn't see the court in 42 games this season and was sent down to the NBA Developmental League for nearly a month. From Jan. 29 to April 6, he played just eight minutes in garbage time for a total of four points on four shots.
"The biggest thing with [Ebanks] was his inexperience, so there was a concern there," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "We felt good enough about him that in the beginning of the season we started him. The tough part about it was as time went on early on, Matt stepped up and played well, and Metta is going to play. Even though he didn't play well, Metta was either going to start or come off the bench. So, I just didn't have enough minutes for Ebanks, so he kind of got lost in the shuffle. I thought his stint in the D-League was very important for his development mentally as well as physically and for us to be able to watch him."
Ebanks' and Hill's lockers are right next to each other in the Lakers' locker room, nestled into a corner between a framed sign that reads "Chemistry = TRUST." That phrase is written atop Brown's folded cardboard schedule every day and is a quote that both Ebanks and Hill had to learn to live by while they watched their teammates play from the sideline.
"I was definitely frustrated," Hill said. "I came from Houston, where I was actually playing, and came here and wasn't playing at all. They already had their chemistry down, and I just kept working until Coach called me and let me know I'd be playing."
Hill's call came at 2 a.m. after the team returned from San Antonio on April 20, when the Spurs blew out the Lakers 121-97. While he was driving back home, Brown called Hill and asked him how his knee was and whether he was ready to play.
"I told him my knee was good and I was ready," Hill said. "I told him to put me in, and he said, 'OK, be ready.'"
Ebanks didn't receive a similar late-night phone call from Brown, but the coach did tell Ebanks to be ready on April 7 after learning that Bryant's bruised shin would sideline him for seven games. Since then, Ebanks has averaged more than 21 minutes and seven points per game.
"I didn't get a call or anything, but Coach called me into his office a couple of weeks ago," Ebanks said. "He told me to 'Be ready to play down the stretch, because we're going to need you,' and I've been playing ever since."
The playoffs have a funny way of developing unlikely heroes, especially for the Lakers. There were Sasha Vujacic's 20-point game in the 2008 Finals and his game-winning free throws in the 2011 Finals. There were Trevor Ariza's 10 3-pointers in 2010 Finals after he was a 31 percent shooter from beyond the arc during the season. And, of course, there were Derek Fisher's timely baskets in the postseason year after year even though he had hit everything but the basket during the regular season.
Before Sunday's game, Nuggets coach George Karl worried that Ebanks and Hill were becoming the newest version of the Lakers' playoff wild cards this season. He had thought so little of Ebanks and Hill before the series, he'd had to ask reporters how Ebanks' last name was pronounced after calling him "Eubanks," and he'd totally forgotten what Hill's first name was.
"Playoffs have what I call wild cards," Karl said. "I think we got to be careful of giving the Lakers a wild card because they got three studs that most of our priorities and preparation is on [Andrew] Bynum, Kobe and [Pau] Gasol, but we can't give them a wild card. The Hill kid is now, all of the sudden, we're a little nervous on Hill. Is he going to give them an Oklahoma City game? I don't know if we can sustain that. We got to pull the wild cards. We have a lot of guys who can be wild cards. We want to win the wild-card game."
The Nuggets weren't able to win the wild-card game on Sunday, and if the Lakers' record in such gambles is any indication, it's a good bet they'll win a few more before the playoffs are over.