Finally, the Los Angeles Lakers are back in familiar territory

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Since Game 1, the Los Angeles Lakers have been fighting through a wilderness of struggle that none of us are familiar with. 82 games later, we're back where we belong.

All you need to know about the 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers season can be found in the first two games. Game 1 was a loss, at home, to a bad team missing their superstar, a poor effort on a poor night. Game 2 was the night we started finding out just how mortal Steve Nash could be. One game an unnecessary loss brought on by lethargy and apathy, the other a sign of the real and significant misfortune that would plague the team throughout the season. One preventable, one unavoidable, both terrible. That is the 2012-2013 season in a nutshell, and it is an experience unlike anything we've ever had before.

By game 5, our head coach was fired. In game 7, Steve Blake joined Steve Nash in the trainer's room, leaving the Lakers with a point guard rotation of Darius Morris and Chris Duhon for six weeks. Pau Gasol went down for the first time in game 17. Game 33 was the tipping point. On that fateful night, the torn labrum Dwight Howard suffered the game before became too much to handle, Pau Gasol suffered a concussion that sidelined him for a week, and Jordan Hill suffered a hip injury that would cost him the season. In one game, the Lakers went from a deep front line, headlined by two stars (though Gasol was not playing like one at the time) to a team with Robert Sacre as the only option at center. Through 42 games, the Lakers were eight games under .500.

The record got better, but the season never did. Pau Gasol suffered another significant injury in game 49, Kobe sprained his ankle (or should I say, had his ankle sprained) in game 67, Metta World Peace completed the "every starter picked up a major injury" quin-fecta in game 70, Nash joined Gasol in the "two major injuries in the same season " club in game 74, and in game 80, just as the Lakers looked ready to put all that failure and misfortune behind them, the fates saved the worst, the most devastating outcome of them all, for last. Kobe, done for the year, and facing stacked odds on ever returning as an elite player again. That would be a death blow to any season, for any team. To deal with it so late in the balance of a season that already had us up to our ears in crap was too much to bear. This Lakers season has been a maze where the walls are made out of feces and there are no solutions. All you can do is put your head down and plow through the shit to get to the next section, hoping against hope that the next wall will be the last.

Finally, the Lakers have broken through. They haven't solved things, because some puzzles have no solutions. But, they have finally reached a place with a clear path forward. They stand now on the same circular battlefield they've stood on so many times before, exactly as far as anybody from the golden ball in the center. The goal now is entirely uncomplicated. Win 16 times before anybody else does, and you get to be called champion.

Unlike our other trips to this battle ground, the Lakers are not favorites this time around. The obstacles they face will be much tougher than usual, and those obstacles are expected to end the Lakers' journey sooner rather than later. But you cannot sleep on this team. All season long, it has been said that the Lakers are a team nobody wants to face in the playoffs, if they can make it that far. People said this because the Lakers still have all of the talent that had many folks pegging the as a Western Conference favorite at the start of the season. Those people are wrong. The Lakers are not a threat to be taken seriously because of their top end talent. They are a threat to be taken seriously because they needed to become the team everybody thought they would be just to get here.

The Lakers won eight of nine games to close the season, a record only Miami and the Denver Nuggets can match. Their 28-12 record over the season's final half extrapolated over an entire season would result in a record better than all but Oklahoma City and Miami. And they have achieved both those feats in spite of having to deal with ever-changing personnel dictated by an ever-increasing list of injuries. They've done it while rarely having all parts of the star-powered core online at the same time. We've lost sight of how impressively the Lakers have recovered because of the onslaught of misery that has come with it, but the Lakers HAVE recovered, and it HAS been impressive.

And now, perhaps as some small (very small) token of good faith from the basketball gods, the Lakers have not only been granted a path in these playoffs, they've been granted a rather nice one. There are three other teams on the Lakers' side of the Western Conference playoff bracket, and every one of them has some question marks of their own as the second season begins. Golden State is the only team in the West with a worse point differential than the Lakers. Although they have an amazing back court and are not short of talent, they are numerically the weakest team in the West, and aside from the Lakers, nobody else is even close. Denver would have been considered the worst possible match-up for the Lakers three weeks ago, but they have been hit by injuries nearly as hard as L.A. has. Danilo Gallinari is done for the year, Kenneth Faried has a sprained ankle which caused him to sit the last two games of the regular season, and Ty Lawson partially tore his fascia in late March. Lawson has returned to the lineup for the last four games, and has seemed OK, but Denver is hardly dealing in the kind of health circumstances you would want at this time of year. No one knows the future, but they may be ripe for an upset, whether at the hands of Golden State or ... otherwise.

And then there's the obstacle standing directly in front of us. After slogging through a season unlike any that we have experienced, the Lakers haven't just gotten to territory that feels familiar. Their opponent provides the exact same familiarity. On Sunday, the Lakers will tip things off against the most appropriate opponent possible, the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs, too, are dealing with the slings and arrows of an 82 game grind. Tony Parker sprained his ankle in March, and then took some time off with tendinitis in early April. Manu Ginobli played just 12 minutes in the month of April, last night, as a warm-up for the playoffs. Both will be ready in Game 1, but whether either player will be in peak form is a legitimate question which won't have an answer until tip off on Sunday. The Spurs are a formidable opponent no matter what, and will rightfully be heavily favored to advance in the series. But we'd be ignorant not to point out that they have a bit of a history of under-performing if their main guys aren't firing on all cylinders.

Between Denver, San Antonio, and the Lakers, we might as well label this half of the Western Conference as the All-Injury bracket. That works in LA's favor, even if their injuries are the worst of the bunch, because it introduces more unknown variables, which lead in turn to a larger array of possible outcomes. It's not exactly the parting of the Red Sea, but when you are trying to forge a path forward from the 7th seed in an eight team tournament, this is about the best you can do. And so we remain with the only hope we've had since January; a fool's hope. It's not based in reality, not based on logic or reason. It's based entirely on instinct, on the fact that we finally know where the Lakers are and where they now need to go. We're back on our turf, and here, having the name "Lakers" blazoned across the chest means something.

It's time to find out how much.

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