In a season filled with turmoil, tumult and, sometimes, even terror, the Los Angeles Lakers have ended the toughest 82 game season in my memory with a slightly different kind of emotion: Hope.
In defeating the Houston Rockets by the final score of 99-95, the Lakers ensured not only that their season will not end with game 82, but that they have the slightest of chances of actually doing something with all the games that come after. Such is the importance of playoff match-ups, and such is the nightmare that loomed if the Lakers could not forge past the 8th spot in the playoff race. Forge past it they have; the Lakers will start the playoffs Sunday as the 7th seed, matched up against an old friend and familiar foe, the San Antonio Spurs.
But, as with everything the Lakers have done this season, it was not easy. Having clawed their way back down the stretch, and having played great defense on the final possession of regulation, the Lakers looked ready to celebrate a hard-earned victory. That is, until Chandler Parsons got the ball out of a scramble and launched a haymaker of a shot as time expired. It was a magical throw, one that defied all physics. As the shot ambled its way towards a rim that is ten feet in the air, it could not have gone higher than 11 feet. I've never seen a shot that flat go in from that distance, but the Lakers apparently needed another reminder that the basketball gods are not their friends this season, and so overtime was required. In overtime, it was the Lakers who got a bit of magic in the form of the exceedingly rare dunk in traffic from Jodie Meeks which sealed the game in LA's favor.
How did they get to that point? Besides their bit of magic, it took a lot more grit and grind. For the second straight game, the Lakers held a strong offensive team well below their scoring average. The Houston Rockets ended up with 95 points, but they needed an extra five minutes of game time to get there. Combined with a 19 point 4th quarter and a 21 point 3rd quarter defensively, the Lakers held Houston to 45 points in 29 minutes to seal the victory. Dwight Howard led the way on that end with four blocks, three steals, and 18 rebounds. In the 2nd half, Dwight was everywhere defensively, at one point sprinting back on D after getting blocked to strip Jeremy Lin under the basket in transition, and for the first time these past two games, the Lakers have looked strong defensively when both Pau and Dwight have been on the court at the same time.
If the defense was Dwight's, the offense belonged to our other center. Pau Gasol was so masterful tonight that Kobe Bryant himself decried that all trade talk for the Spaniard must cease. His line is beyond incredible; 17 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists is a straight LeBron-ian line, and with Kobe Bryant out, Pau Gasol is easily the best offense generator on the team. Of course, Pau had help from a man who does a surprisingly good impression of the Black Mamba, Mr. Steve Blake. For the 2nd straight game, Blake provided enough offensive threat to keep guys honest on the perimeter, besting Sunday's total with 24 season-high points. This time, it wasn't ultra-efficient from any spot on the floor, but Blake's aggressiveness has been key in giving Pau and Dwight enough time down low to do what they do.
So the season from hell lives on, but not in a way that can perpetuate any more negative energy. Having gotten this far, the Lakers are officially playing with house money. Nobody expects anything of them anymore. Not with Kobe done for the year. Not with Steve Nash taking shots just to have a chance at playing. Not with better, more accomplished teams staring down at them at every turn. Now, we get to sit back and enjoy the ride, no matter how much further the ride goes.