HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Let the singing of the praises begin. The Los Angeles Lakers are in the playoffs and in this strange season, that’s no small feat.
May it start with Dwight Howard. He was demanded to be dominant without Kobe Bryant by analysts such as Magic Johnson and more, and for those two must-have games he delivered: 42 points, 35 rebounds and seven blocks while playing 82 of 96 minutes.
“Everybody counted us out, but one thing that I told the guys tonight was that we’ve been through so much as a team this year, from the injuries to the rumors and everything that has happened,” Howard said after the Lakers rallied to defeat Houston 99-95 in overtime and pass the Rockets for the seventh seed. “It could have made us separate from each other, but we stayed strong, stayed together and we won for each other tonight. So we’re happy that we’re in the playoffs, but we’re not done yet.”
Next up for a golf clap is coach Mike D’Antoni. He’s absorbed tidal waves of criticism since taking over — including from right here — as the fans’ distant second choice to jilted Phil Jackson. Sure, Kobe’s season-ending Achilles injury might have finally forced D’Antoni to bend and feed his two bigs, Dwight and Pau Gasol, as so many have screamed for months, but he did.
Dwight’s 30 shot attempts over the last two games are his highest two-game total since March 6-8. At the other end, he reminded us why he was the three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Orlando before the back injury last season derailed a shot at four in a row. His two defensive gems against a driving James Harden late in the game were marvelous.
Gasol, dogged by injuries and an intellectual basketball divide with D’Antoni, came through in the last two games with 24 points, 36 rebounds and 13 assists, with a number of nifty passes going to Dwight.
The bottom line is the Lakers were written off and easily ridiculed. On Jan. 2 they were 15-16 and in 11th place. On Jan. 24 the Lakers hit rock-bottom, in 12th place at 17-25. Since then, through the death of beloved owner Jerry Buss and injuries to Gasol and Nash and Metta World Peace and now Kobe, they finished 28-12.
With the season on the line every single day in April, the Lakers won eight of nine.
“Obviously I’m really proud the way for just a month they had to just play in elimination-like games every night, and I think Steve Nash said it best, or Dwight, I forget which one said it, but after they [Houston’s Chandler Parsons] threw in the 3 to tie the game and it went into overtime, he said, ‘It’s been hard all year, this stuff’s happened all year, so why was this any different, and it’s not going to be easy and let’s go out and win it,’ and they did.
“The great thing about it was everybody contributed, somebody did something that we got the win, because you can’t shoot 36 percent and make it easy, it’s going to be tough. So we didn’t shoot the ball well, but other than that I thought we had good shots and I thought the guys obviously played hard and we played well defensively again.”
It has been a team thing. Steve Blake has been off the charts with back-to-back 20-plus-point games. Antawn Jamison had 31 points and 10 rebounds, and shot 5-for-10 from beyond the arc.
While Utah’s loss at Memphis just before the Lakers tipped off against the Rockets got them in the playoffs, the gutsy win made sure they’d snag the unforeseen seventh seed and avoid Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Blake said. “I’m just proud to be a Laker.”
Now these Lakers will take their cuts, with the pressure eased and nothing to lose with Kobe on crutches, against a disciplined and proficient San Antonio Spurs team. However, it is a Spurs team that limps into the postseason and isn’t immune to an early postseason upset.
In this strange season, anything, it seems, is possible.