Tensions subsided as the Memphis Grizzlies defeat of the Jazz afforded fans and Lakers alike a moment of levity before the 82nd game of a tumultuous season. Concluding a regular season at times akin to riding a bicycle on an avalanche, the Lakers exited the tunnel onto the court not worried about whether or not they would play beyond this night. Several reports described them smiling.
The 8th seed was theirs. LA only needed a win and they could choose their opponent. A win would propel them miraculously into 7th place and ensure a Sunday trip to San Antonio in the first round.
Behind a collective effort by each of the nine playing Lakers, maligned at one time or another this crazy and occasionally indescribable season, the game finally ended with LA victorious after 53 minutes of play, 99-95.
Of course, the outcome required the pre-game exhale as fans and Lakers alike held their breaths through five extra minutes on the final night of the NBA season.
Despite Chandler Parson’s frozen rope three at the end of regulation to push the game into the extra frame, the Lakers rallied repeatedly throughout the contest, using both the resilience built over an injury-plagued season and a sense of purpose on defense.
Chants of “Defense!” erupted from the sidelines to the rafters of the Staples Center as the Lakers climbed their way back from the jaws of defeat to take a three-point lead with seconds remaining. The Rockets had dispatched the Lakers with relative ease four of the last five times they met, and sans Kobe Bryant made the prospect of facing the Thunder in the first round all too realistic.
Yet, these Lakers did not give up, or go gentle into that good night.
They came together. They willed themselves through a win against the Spurs to stay ahead of the Jazz. They withstood a first half torching of their defense at the hands of James Harden’s 18 points on 4-9 from the field and 3-5 from deep. They slowed the pace down in the second half, using their bigs and forcing the fouling Rockets into the penalty with 8:55 to go in the 4th quarter. They fought back from as many as 10-down in the 3rd and succeeded in OT because of teamwork.
The now healthy frontcourt of the Lakers channeled their forefathers, the Rushmore of legendary centers that hang above the court, and shouldered the responsibility of Kobe’s playoff promise. Pau put up 1978 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar numbers, recording his 2nd triple double in three games with 17 points, 20 rebounds, and 11 assists. Dwight took over the paint and broke Wilt Chamberlain’s record as the youngest in the NBA to reach 9,000 rebounds. Only his 4 well-timed blocks could overshadow his 18 boards, 16 points, and 3 steals. His final swat remained the most pivotal, a denial of a James Harden drive to the rim as the Lakers clung to a 3-point lead with 21 seconds to go in OT.
Steve Blake, the busily hash tagged Blake Mamba, AKA Rocky Balboa, continued to channel Kobe Bryant and led the team with 24 points, adding 7 assists and 7 rebounds. He put up 20 shots, including 12 from three, but overcame some questionable looks early by coming up gigantic late. After bottoming a three with 6:35 to go in the 4th, giving the Lakers their first lead, 81-79, since the 1st quarter, he calmly sank two free throws to ice the contest in OT.
Someone might want to check his BAL for some of that Kobe vino.
MWP stayed active with 12 points and necessary defense, hounding Harden and helping to hold him to 12 points on 4-16 shooting in the second half and OT after his incandescent start. Meeks shockingly passed up a three attempt and drove baseline in OT to throw down a two-handed jam with 56 seconds left to keep LA up by 3.
Even the bench guards, Morris and Goudelock, by chasing Harden and Lin, pitched in where they could to support their team. Morris drained back-to-back buckets on back-to-back assists from Pau to end the 3rd that kept the surging Rockets only up by 5. Then, after Houston’s last three careened off the rim, Morris collected the board and dribbled out the clock.
This team effort that scrambled to collect the loose ball at the end of regulation that turned into the Parson game-tying three did not disappear.
It continued. It continues into the post season. The teamwork that the Lakers exhibited will and remain their best and only hope to advance.
Both teams charged back and forth, up and down the court, fighting valiantly for the chance to avoid the assumed Western Conference representatives for the NBA Finals. But, the basketball universe balanced itself. The Lakers have the best chance to advance against the also hobbled Spurs, but will no doubt face another battle for the ages. OKC deserves the prospect of Harden scoring successive career-highs with each game to prove that they should have paid for his continued services. The match ups benefit everyone involved, especially the fans. The storylines establish great potential for historical battles commensurate with the NBA Playoffs.