On Wednesday night, after a season of huge expectations, early failure, continued turmoil, pestering disappointment, numerous injuries and too much drama to keep track of, the Los Angeles Lakers turned an uncertain final game of the regular season into the seventh seed in the Western Conference.
So, Lakers fans … congratulations?
That depends on the mettle of this team and its new, young leader, Dwight Howard.
Now comes the real test for this Kobe-less team: Whether a playoff berth is enough of a balm against this underwhelming season, or whether they still burn to make this season right and turn their matchup with the No.-2 seeded San Antonio Spurs into an actual redemption story.
To be fair to the Lakers and their fans, they started 17-25 and finished 28-12 despite injuries to all five starters, and they now face a Spurs team that seems vulnerable, offers a good matchup for a Lakers team suddenly with two bigs paying great basketball, and has a history the past few years of simply running out of gas in the postseason.
To be fair to Lakers' haters, Howard giving Sparta-wanna-be speeches and taking unnecessary and thinly veiled shots at Kobe by saying he's not the only one to play in big games — to say nothing of needing overtime to beat the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets at home — doesn’t exactly instill confidence that Dwight has grown up or the Lakers are anything more than a mediocre team.
All season, the drama swirled around the fact that Dwight and Kobe simply did not co-exist easily. Not on the floor. Not in the locker room. Not in the media coverage that often divided along lines either pro-Kobe or pro-Dwight. But with Kobe felled by age and injury, and the Lakers in, the time has come for Dwight Howard to put up or shut up.
Given how talkative he's become since Kobe's injury, there's little hope for the shut-up part. So maybe, just maybe, there's some put up coming too.
• The New York Knicks, one season removed from forcing out Mike D'Antoni and squashing Linsanity, put all their chips on Carmelo Anthony. The result? They’re a 2-seed, and ‘Melo, having gotten the D'Antoni- and Linsanity-free organization he wanted, is the main reason. He locked up the scoring title Wednesday along with the idea that he deserves a lot of credit for the Knicks' renaissance. But it’s too early to embrace the idea that New York's excellent regular season fully exonerates 'Melo and his tendency to be a diva more concerned with getting his shots than advancing in the playoffs. He absolutely deserves credit for the Knicks' turnaround and a new reputation as a winner worthy of his talents ... once the Knicks take care of business and win their opening-round playoff series against Boston.
• Memphis, despite missing out on home-court advantage in its opening-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, won a gritty, hard-fought game against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night. The Jazz were playing for a do-or-die game for their own playoff life, so Memphis’ victory reiterated that it can be a tough, defensively superior team when the time — like playoff time — comes. But it also underscored that a Grizzlies team sans Rudy Gay still has few options to score at will when a bucket could be the difference between a playoff win or playoff loss. Memphis is tough, its bigs are brutes, and its style is intriguing for playoff basketball. But can a team that hopes to win games by keeping teams in the 70- or 80-point range really hope to advance in a conference with teams like the Clippers and Thunder?
• Speaking of high-octane, exciting Western Conference offenses, take some time to enjoy the Denver-Golden State series. This 3-vs.-6-seed matchup will feature two high-tempo, interesting teams that'll put a lot of points on the board. The Warriors have Steph Curry, fresh off setting the single-season record for 3-pointers. And Denver has the squad that scores more fast-break points than anyone in the league and a depth-driven, non-star group hell-bent on showing its team-oriented, score-and-attack approach can reap real dividends in the postseason. Even if neither advances much further than past the other, it’ll be fun to watch.
• Derrick Rose remains the great mystery of Chicago sports, and by all accounts there’s little to suggest he'll return for the Bulls' opening series against the Brooklyn Nets. Even if that's true, this is a seven-game series that’s really intriguing. The Nets have a rejuvenated Deron Williams at point guard. The Bulls have a hard-nosed, Tom Thibodeau-coached team that emphasizes defense and has no idea when its own star will return, let alone return to form. But what the Bulls lack in star power they've made up lately in grit and passion, from upsetting the Heat's 27-game winning streak to weathering the Rose uncertainty and climbing to that 5 seed.
• Credit the Clippers. This season they';ve had a 17-game win streak, a ton of praise and expectations, some doldrums and, lately, reports of disharmony among its stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. But in the end, in a jammed-up Western Conference, they held on to take home-court advantage in the first round. That gives them a much-needed advantage over a Memphis team that took them to seven games last season when it was Memphis who had home-court advantage. If this is the year the Clippers finally break through and make a run at the Finals, its strong end to the regular season and first-round advantage over Memphis might be where we later look back and say it got a boost.