Photo Credit: Steve Dykes / EPA
On January 23rd the Los Angeles Lakers lost on the road to the Grizzlies 106-93 and dropped to 17-25 to 12th place in the Western Conference. Most experts by now had completely counted the Lakers out and gave them no shot at making the playoffs. The story of the Lakers’ ineffectiveness and futility headlined SportsCenter nightly because the thought of the Purple and Gold not being in the playoffs was mind boggling.
A meeting was held before the Memphis game to “clear the air” where Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant shared thoughts on the team, which reportedly got heated. Kobe was told to share the ball more and Dwight Howard was told to simply play basketball and not complain. Steve Nash’s responsibilities changed from handling the ball to being a spot up shooter. Kobe Bryant became more of a facilitator than a scorer and compiled a whopping 35 assists over the next three games, all wins. They were playing team basketball instead of “look at Kobe go one-on-one”. In their win at Brooklyn on February 5th the Lakers were dealt another blow when Pau Gasol suffered a torn plantar fascia which sidelined him six to eight weeks. With Howard missing the past three games due to re-aggravating his injured shoulder, Kobe Bryant talked to Dwight and told him that the team needed him to play through the pain. Howard returned the next game, a loss to Boston, but it was good to see Howard man-up and play through the injury. Heading into the All-Star Break the Lakers had won eight of their last twelve and had a record of 25-29.
It really is incredible that even when the Lakers weren’t playing, they were still suffering body blows. The day before the All-Star Game, the Lakers’ long-time owner Jerry Buss died of cancer after being hospitalized for 18 months. This shook the whole NBA, especially Los Angeles of course, because Buss was maybe the best owner in sports history, depending on where you rank George Steinbrenner. They trailed Houston by 3.5 games for the last spot in the Western Conference Playoffs, which gave them hope of making a run at this thing. I am not sure if it was the death of Buss or just the frustration of the thought of missing the playoffs, but Kobe started to go off after the All-Star Break. The Lakers were 3–0 in their first week back, including a win over the rival Celtics. Bryant was named the Western Conference player of the week after averaging 31.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists. He scored 38 points while shooting at least 60% in consecutive games, the first time in his career; he also became the oldest player to accomplish the feat. They began to quietly climb in the standings and finally were back at .500 on March 3rd when they beat Atlanta at home 99-98.
They would go 3-1 over their next four games which included a huge comeback win against New Orleans and another one against Toronto. Los Angeles trailed by as many as 25 points in New Orleans, when Bryant decided to erupt for 42 points on 14-21 shooting in their humongous comeback victory. Two days later the Lakers found themselves in another hole trailing by 15 at home to the Raptors. Los Angeles clawed themselves back in the game to cut the deficit to five with 1:43 left in regulation. Kobe got the ball on the right wing with the shot clock showing one second left, pump-faked and drilled a three to trim the lead to two points. Now down four with 32 seconds left, Steve Nash inbounded the ball to Kobe in the corner and without thinking he drilled another three to cut the lead to one. Now down three, with eight seconds left Kobe raced to get open off of an inbound play, and caught it with two defenders on him. He pump-faked to get one defender off of him, then shot it over the other to tie the game at 109. Those were three plays that may have saved the season for the purple and gold. The game went into overtime where with ten seconds left, Bryant drove to the hoop and emphatically threw down a mega-dunk and gave the Lakers a signature win.
On Sunday, Los Angeles hosted the Bulls and put in one of their better defensive games by holding Chicago to 81 points. Offensively they put in one their more balanced scoring efforts when six players scored in double figures, but no one reached twenty points. Dwight Howard was fantastic as he posted 16 points, 21 rebounds, and four blocked shots. Bryant led the team with nine dimes and 19 points. The win was a milestone for the team as it put them two games above .500; and more importantly in sole possession of the eighth and final seed in the playoffs. Now that they are in the playoffs for now, the goal is to achieve more by moving up to higher seeds of course. They sit one game back of Houston for the 7th seed and two games back of Golden State for the 6th seed. With an injured Tony Parker, I would not count on the Spurs holding off Oklahoma City for the top seed, which means the Lakers better move up if they want to avoid the Thunder in the 1st round, which they do. It will not be easy as to close out the season they have only two home games compared to eight road matchups. March 25th is date to circle when they visit Golden State, in what could be a crucial game to determine seeding or if someone makes it or not.
Since the Memphis loss back in January, in games where Bryant leads the Lakers in assists, Los Angeles is 11-4. The change in offense has certainly worked and the idea of sharing the basketball has changed this teams’ fortune. Dwight Howard has refocused himself and is playing outstanding of late, which can be attributed to the new undershirt he is wearing. Howard said the black undershirt he wears, known as “The Posture Shirt” helps keep his back “and everything else aligned. It helps my shoulders with that, too,” Howard added. “When Howard moves, those elastic bands move with him,” CEO Bill Schultz said, who invented the shirt Howard wears. “That ends up stretching and massaging the muscle.” With Nash scoring more, Kobe passing while still scoring at a high rate, and Dwight Howard playing happy, the Lakers are to be feared by all. How would you like to be a playoff team with a fairly high seed, and you look to the opposing bench and see Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Dwight Howard? An expression of relaxation would quickly turn to fear. Who knows? Maybe, Pau Gasol makes a return as well and boosts this teams’ weapons even more. They are playing for their late owner and to prove everyone wrong whoever doubted them, and it’s scary.