LOS ANGELES – It’s still difficult to process the devastation, that these are the Los Angeles Lakers. The 16-time champs. The team that coulda-woulda won 70 this season, yet suffered a third consecutive playoff loss and their worst one ever at home Friday, 120-89, to the San Antonio Spurs.
The classic gold uniforms emblazoned with purple down the sides and LAKERS racing across the front looked the same as playoffs past. But who were those guys wearing them? Even Jack had to raise his shades.
Guys named Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris and Chris Duhon and Earl Clark were forced to play minutes better suited for a Vegas Summer League game. Meanwhile, $34.2 million of Laker payroll — or the club’s top four guards, including a cat named Kobe Bryant — watched from the bench, injured and dejected.
Actually, Black Mamba never even made it courtside. He probably knew what was ahead and knew he couldn’t stomach it, knew he couldn’t contain himself out in the open in front of restless fans, his fans, and grinding his teeth into talcum powder right there on the floor he’s so accustomed to dominating this time of year. Hidden from view, Bryant probably sent himself a thousand tweets.
After the game, being whirred away in a golf cart and wearing a gold Lakers t-shirt and a protective boot rising halfway up his left leg, Kobe was asked if it was hard to watch. “Of course,” he said, turning his palms up as if to say #WTH.
The game was uglier than even expected and the final result fit the description Mike D’Antoni used before the game for his state of mind considering the injuries and the crew he had left for a must-win Game 3: “As a coach you sleep like a baby and every 15 minutes you wake up crying.”
Then asked if his newly-christened backcourt of newbies Goudelock and Morris might actually improve the team’s perimeter defense from that of Steve Nash and Steve Blake, D’Antoni first laughed out loud, then said, “Uh, no.” He kept laughing.
Earlier in the day, the coach and his players tried to paint a scenario of success, talking of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol taking care of the paint and the NBA D-League MVP Goudelock, thrilled for his first NBA start, he said, so his parents back home in Atlanta could watch him on TV, would go off as if Friday night was just another D-League Showcase. At least the kid came strong, and at least the Lakers didn’t allow their first 18-point deficit in the second quarter to wipe them out without a fight. The second one in the third quarter did, and then came the cheap “We Want Phil” chants, first short-lived and then more robust during the Spurs’ runaway fourth.
And with that, this stink-o, injury-ravaged Lakers season is finally in the spin cycle and ready to drain.
The San Antonio Spurs, with five players scoring in double figures and 13 in all scoring, seek to wrap up this fraudulent first-round series Sunday back at Staples. If accomplished it would be the second broom taken to the proud Lakers in three seasons. The unceremonious end will officially begin the unceremonious “Where’s Dwight Going?” reality show. Get your popcorn.
Of course, there’s still basketball to be played in L.A. as soon as Tuesday night when the toast-of-the-town Clippers and the once-upon-a-time-Lakers-bound Chris Paul return home for Game 5 against the Grizzlies. The Spurs, assuming they do close this sack of a series on Sunday, will go home to begin an extended rest awaiting the high-speed winner between Denver and Golden State, two clubs themselves that aren’t whole.
The Warriors’ David Lee (torn hip flexor) and Denver’s Danilo Gallinari (torn ACL), two high-scoring, highly productive forwards instrumental to their teams’ success, are each out for the duration. Oklahoma City now feels their pain. Point guard Russell Westbrook will have surgery, the team announced Friday, to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.
The Thunder and the Spurs, last season’s Western Conference foes, figured to be so again. OKC’s side of the bracket with the Clippers and Grizzlies has sprung wide open. And suddenly it’s the Spurs who look primed to make a real run at a fifth championship in the Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan era, a number that would tie the 37-year-old wonder in rings with Kobe.
“We’re good. Health is good,” Popovich said prior to Game 3. “The last few weeks haven’t been great health-wise, but we’ve slowly gotten better and better. Considering how many people have problems around the league, and the Lakers having theirs, we’re feeling pretty fortunate in that regard.”
Only a few weeks ago, the Spurs were the walking wounded and now have their Big Three healthy and with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker returning to All-Star form.
Of course health this time of year is fleeting and that fact came crashing home as starting center Tiago Splitter, having his best season in the NBA, hopped off the floor with his left foot dangling in mid-air and left the arena on crutches.
X-rays were negative, but chances are slim that he can play Sunday. It will leave the Spurs a little light in the middle for one last stand from Dwight and Pau, one, if not both of whom might be playing their final game in Laker purple-and-gold.