- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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At the end of this long, trying regular season, everything had come down to this one game. One more game to ensure the Lakers didn't go down as the biggest flop in modern sports history. One more win to make this exhausting final push worth it. One more night to dwell in the possibilities of this collection of talent that has never quite fit together.
And then the Utah Jazz lost. Right before tipoff, right as the Lakers were focusing in and bearing down, the plot thinned.
There would now be a front door and a backdoor into the playoffs. One way leading to a fearsome matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the other to a more palatable date with a banged-up San Antonio Spurs team the Lakers had defeated only two nights earlier.
Everything about what these Lakers have been this season, the very reasons they found themselves in this desperate place to begin with, suggested they would gingerly slip through that backdoor.
That once the situation was no longer dire, they would have trouble summoning the type of passion and fire needed to bust through that front door.
Well, everything the Lakers had been.
You see, while the rest of the league was debating why the Lakers had fallen into such a deep hole, they were busy climbing out of it.
It was hard and ugly and bleak at times, but amid the drama, coach Mike D'Antoni and the Lakers actually found a way to win 28 of their final 40 games.
"I think under the circumstances, Mike did a great job," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told ESPNLosAngeles.com after the game. "We don't anticipate any kind of a change.
"No training camp, all the injuries, through the end of the season he's done a great job."
It remains to be seen if all this will amount to anything more than saving the franchise from the disgrace of missing the playoffs after trading for Nash and Howard in the offseason.
San Antonio will be and should be favored in the first-round playoff series, which begins Sunday afternoon.
Yes, the Lakers found a way to win three critical, difficult games after Bryant was lost for the season because of a torn Achilles last Friday night. Gasol has been brilliant, recording his second triple-double in three games with 17 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists against the Rockets. Howard had 16 points, 18 rebounds and played stout defense. Blake has been a revelation, this time contributing 24 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.
But you wonder how long they can sustain this level of play without Bryant.
Even so, if this is the high-water mark, the fact that the Lakers are still breathing is significant after how badly things began.
"He doesn't get enough credit, and understandably so," Kupchak said of D'Antoni. "We struggled through two-thirds of the season and expectations were so high.
"The Lakers didn't help things by making the coaching change and putting Mike in that situation, which he was glad to take. But I think it was a little bit tougher than he thought it would be."
It was tougher, in a lot of ways, because D'Antoni made it tough on himself at first. He held firm to his principles on offense for far too long. He alienated Gasol from the start.
But to his credit, he did eventually adjust and adapt.
"You can watch personnel from 3,000 miles away and think you know a team," Kupchak said. "But when you get here and you watch the practice and play with that team, it might not be exactly what you thought it was.
"I thought he made adjustments and remained flexible with the players. We're not playing the same way we played when he first got here. We had a chance to look at the team and get to know the players, get to know the bench players and it's probably different than what he thought."
D'Antoni also should be credited with supporting Howard through thick and thin. The center's poor free throw shooting, conditioning and play undeniably cost the Lakers some games early. Even Howard admitted as much midway through this season, when he revealed just how much his offseason back surgery was still affecting his game.
But D'Antoni never wavered in his support for the young center, who the Lakers hope will become the next cornerstone of the franchise.
D'Antoni stuck with Howard late in games, even as teams put him on the line repeatedly. And he continued to emphasize Howard in the offense, even when the results were so poor at the beginning.
None of that sounds like what a coach would put on his résumé. None of it will be celebrated.
A No. 7 seeding spared the Lakers from the embarrassment of missing the playoffs. As relieved as the Staples Center crowd was after the win Wednesday night, no one left the building with their chest puffed out.
But if all this has taught the Lakers anything, it's that they can handle just about anything.
"The one thing that comes out of it, when you're in these type of situations," assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff said, "you know who you want to be in the foxhole with. That's a good thing."
2dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann