LOS ANGELES – This series, and this season for that matter, couldn’t have ended any other way.
The Lakers’ final game in a disastrous season, a 103-82 Game 4 playoff loss to the San Antonio Spurs, felt like a series of sideshows – a poorly timed Dwight Howard ejection, a Kobe Bryant appearance on crutches, a standing ovation for Pau Gasol in what could have been his last game as a Laker.
But as the season ended ingloriously Sunday afternoon at Staples Center, all it really meant is that the Lakers can now begin moving toward their uncertain future.
Does it include coach Mike D’Antoni and Howard? Or maybe just one of them? Will Gasol be traded or waived using the amnesty clause? And can Bryant – whenever he’s able to return from surgery on his left Achilles tendon – be the same old Kobe?
Those are subjects that will be handled over the next several months. But first, the Lakers had to lick their collective wounds after being soundly dispatched by the Spurs in a four-game sweep, the first time since 1967 that a Lakers team was swept in the opening round of the playoffs.
“It’s like a nightmare,” Howard said. “It’s like a bad dream that we couldn’t wake up out of. That’s what it felt like.”
That was a perfect description of the entire season, from the 1-4 start to the firing of coach Mike Brown to the unending list of injuries to the loss of Bryant – and finally, the crushing loss to San Antonio. The only thing that salvaged it was the Lakers’ 28-12 record after Jan. 23 and the late push to the playoffs, although they were left without Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Metta World Peace and Jodie Meeks, all of whom were missing Sunday because of injuries.
Despite all the crazy sh%# this season, I had a great time…see y’all nxt season #laker#LakerNation..love y’all
“It was kind of a year that was all upside down,” D’Antoni said. “I appreciate the effort they gave to get us in the playoffs, but then they just didn’t have it.”
Howard, who picked up his second technical foul in the third quarter and finished with seven points and eight rebounds, gave no clear indication whether he would explore the free-agent market or come back to a team where he struggled to fit in.
“I’m going to step away from everything for a couple of weeks and clear my head before I talk about anything as far as next season,” he said. “I deserve that, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
General manager Mitch Kupchak has already said publicly that D’Antoni is coming back, although Howard could make his return contingent on a new coach. Would the Lakers give a player the right to choose the team’s coach? Probably not, unless they believe Howard is important enough to their future.
Howard insisted that he and Bryant were not at odds during the season, despite the fact he had to take a secondary role to Bryant on offense. But Howard indicated that any problems between them were just talk, not truth.
“We had a pretty good relationship before I got here,” he said. “A lot of people twisted a lot of things like the fake fights and the arguments that we supposedly had. We’ve maintained a pretty good relationship, and I’m going to continue to be here for him throughout the process that he has to go through recovering from his Achilles.”
Bryant didn’t talk after the game, choosing instead to wheel away in a golf cart, but he made sure he was visible during the game. Moments after Howard was escorted off the floor, Bryant emerged from a tunnel and hobbled toward the Lakers bench on crutches. No surprise, in a game his team was losing badly, he was welcomed with a standing ovation.
Bryant ambled into the team huddle during a fourth-quarter timeout and could be seen animatedly talking to his teammates in what appeared to be a pep talk. It didn’t help.
The only other standing ovation was reserved for Gasol, who left with 3 minutes, 8 seconds remaining and his team losing by 23 points. He scored a team-high 16 points.
I don’t have enough words of appreciation to YOU, our fans, and everyone around the team. Thanks for sticking with us through everything.