Yes, the mighty Lakers were on the verge of sneaking into the Western Conference field as the eighth and final seed. Their likely reward would be a first-round matchup against Oklahoma City, the defending champ in the West.
Talk about your heroic run to eighth. The Lakers, squeaking into the playoffs? This isn't what L.A. had in mind when they brought in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to team up with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, giving them four starters with credentials for the Hall of Fame.
The Lakers were the NBA's new villains, remember? For fans who had softened on LeBron James and the Miami Heat, they were the new bully on the playground, a team to hate. The league was dreaming of a Kobe-LeBron showdown in the NBA Finals, with James standing in the way of Bryant's sixth title.
Well, it didn't turn out that way. Those gold-plated Lakers got coach Mike Brown fired a week into the season, then struggled to adjust to Mike D'Antoni. Gasol and Nash missed 30 games each. Howard wilted in the hot lights of L.A. and shot free throws as if wearing oven mitts.
Bryant responded as he always does, by competing at a ridiculously high level. He took all the big shots, became more of a passer when circumstances demanded it, and physically attempted to will his team into the playoffs.
That's a lot to ask from a 34-year-old star in his 17th season. On Friday, Bryant's body finally gave out. With 3:08 left in a home game against the Warriors. Bryant tore his Achilles tendon, ending his year and leaving him with a recovery that will likely drag into next season.
At the time of the injury, Bryant had played every minute in the game. He had played at least 40 minutes in seven straight games. He was averaging 38.6 minutes a game – second in the NBA to Chicago's Luol Deng and the most Bryant had logged in six years.
Bryant had fallen to the floor twice earlier in the Golden State win after tweaking each of his knees. He stayed in the game, limping down the court as the Staples Center crowd chanted “MVP!”
Insiders say Bryant simply wore out. He said playing big minutes was necessary. That's what you'd expect from one of the true gamers. D'Antoni laughed about Bryant's heavy playing time earlier in the year. He called him a “warrior” and said Bryant had “earned the right to do certain things.”
Mitch Kupchak, the general manager, told Bryant he was concerned about his minutes earlier in the season. Bryant said he had to get his team into the playoffs and there was nothing the GM could do about it. Kupchak said there have been times when Bryant would put himself back in the game.
That's too convenient an out. D'Antoni is the head coach, the presumed genius who was going to revive the Lakers with his precious offensive system. It was his job to manage Bryant's minutes and protect a proud athlete from himself.
Sure, Bryant wanted to play on. He doesn't have much time left. A month ago, he said he'd probably retire after next season. I can't see him leaving after one more year now. Bryant is desperate to win a sixth NBA championship, tying Michael Jordan. He recently moved into fourth on the all-time NBA scoring list. He's only 675 behind Jordan, who is third.
But the 17-year quest has put a lot of stress on Bryant. He's 34, with the mileage of a player a few years older. Kobe is 12th in career NBA minutes with 45,390. Jordan finished with 41,011. Counting playoffs, however, Bryant has logged more than 10,000 more minutes than Jordan at the same age.
That's why he needed protecting. Kupchak and D'Antoni claim they were powerless, but the Lakers brought it on themselves. They had a chance to bring back the one coach who commanded Bryant's respect and had a history of massaging his minutes during a long season: Phil Jackson.
Owner Jim Buss turned his back on Jackson, who coached Bryant to all five titles. He put his faith in D'Antoni, who was so desperate to make the playoffs and justify his hiring that he ran his superstar into the ground.
At least the Bryant injury gives the organization cover for losing. They probably weren't going far in the playoff, anyway. Now they have Bryant's Achilles as an excuse. It'll make it easier to retain D'Antoni, sparing Buss the indignity of firing another coach.
The pressure is off. L.A. will be a big underdog if they meet the Thunder in an opening best-of-seven. In six months, they've gone from villain to victim, a sympathetic figure. Even Bryant's critics are feeling sorry for him and wishing him a full recovery.
The Lakers have won seven of eight. They'll be motivated to prove they can win without Kobe. Bryant, who watched the win over the Spurs from home Sunday, called to give Gasol a pep talk at halftime. Even in a cast, Bryant is the most competitive person on his team.
That's why Thunder-Lakers would have been one of the most compelling 1-8 matchups in history (though the league surely envisioned it as the conference final). If all four stars had been healthy, the Lakers would have been a tough out and good show.
L.A. would have challenged Oklahoma City's half-court defense. The playoffs will test the offensive depth of the Thunder, who are too reliant on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The Lakers have nothing to lose. They're the cuddly underdogs. Howard likes it that way. “We have a chance to win, go to the playoffs, and make history,” he said Sunday.
Howard talks a good game. But talk is cheap this time of year. The great ones walk the walk. That's what Bryant did best. It's a shame that walking too far with a team on his back finally did him in.
Lakers needed to protect Kobe
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