Can you even remember the hype now? The magazine covers?
The Los Angeles Lakers season ended with Kobe Bryant on crutches, Dwight Howard in the shower and their original coach, Mike Brown, coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers.
October was a long time ago, man.
Did you ever imagine you’d hear the Staples Center like that? Lifeless during a playoff game? It sounded like a lively church service in there, an arena and a city watching just because it was on, like a Sunday afternoon showing of “Roadhouse.” The San Antonio Spurs swept the Lakers, closing it out with a 103-82 win Sunday in Los Angeles.
There was nothing to see there. It wasn’t even really the Lakers out there, with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash both out with the kinds of injuries you get when you’re cruising into your late 30s and still trying to play basketball.
Now Dwight Howard is a free agent, so who knows? He got himself ejected from Sunday’s elimination game, getting two technical fouls for physically expressing his frustration at the expense of whoever happened to be guarding him at the time. He looked like he just wanted out of there, and who could really blame him? The Lakers were getting blown out, the series was over and this whole messy, dramatic season was put out of its misery.
A couple minutes later, some life swelled up within Staples Center, and it turned out that was because Bryant had crutched himself into the arena. He could not walk under his own power, but there he was in the flesh. The fans cheered because it was literally the best thing they had seen during this series. He could not play, but at least he reminded them that things had been better in the past, and might get better in the future.
As concerns the immediate future, there is plenty of doubt about that. Bryant insists he’ll play again, but even by the time he recovers from his Achilles injury he’ll be a 36-year-old man trying to recover from an Achilles injury. As noted, Howard is no longer under contract with the Lakers, and could choose to sign somewhere else. The Houston Rockets have a young core and a lot of cap space, so they’re a reasonable option, but this is Howard we’re talking about, so you never really know.
The only thing that can be said for sure is that this particular Lakers experiment did not work. The Lakers spent most of the year with Howard and Pau Gasol awkwardly not complementing each other’s games, and Bryant trying to play this weird older brother role.
People laughed when Bryant promised the Lakers would make the playoffs. That they did it — as the No. 7 seed no less — created some hope they could beat an aging, injured Spurs team that lost seven of its last 10 regular-season games.
Certainly the Spurs were (are) vulnerable. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are both smarting from injuries sustained late in the season. The trouble was, by the time Nash and Steve Blake went down hurt, the Lakers had nobody capable of even testing those two guys. The Spurs swept that series without even really having to try. Can those guys compete at 100 percent? Maybe we’ll find out next week.
The Lakers do not deserve to be felt sorry for. What they are experiencing is a worst-case scenario, but something resembling this was always a realistic consequence of their decisions. They decided to sign Nash, who is 37. They decided to sign Howard, who has not lived up to expectations and has not exactly inspired his teammates. They decided to blame their problems on Brown, decided to fire him early in the season and decided to replace him with Mike D’Antoni, whose whole system is — even according to Nash — not a perfect fit for L.A.’s personnel.
There is a measure of schadenfreude to be enjoyed here, same as when the Yankees or Cowboys or Blue Devils scrape their chins on the pavement. And there must be plenty of people feeling that.
But wasn’t this a little different? Are Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock some kind of overdog backcourt? This wasn’t the Lakers. Not really.
This was something different. Something sad. As time ran down, there were more empty seats in Staples Center than full ones. And when the buzzer sounded, Bryant stood up, tucked his crutches under his armpits and swung himself out the tunnel.