Lakers still playoff-bound after rocky season
Dwight Howard's first season with the Los Angeles Lakers has been filled with more twists, setbacks and disappointments than he ever imagined when he was traded last summer.
He's still hoping the Lakers can come up with a few more surprises for the playoffs.
Los Angeles reached the postseason as the Western Conference's seventh seed with an overtime victory over Houston on Wednesday night, outlasting every misfortune that befell the Lakers during one of the most tumultuous regular seasons in recent NBA history. They've even done it with Kobe Bryant watching the last two games from home, his season finished with a torn Achilles tendon.
The overtime win capped a 28-12 surge for a star-studded club with enormous preseason expectations that have been long overshadowed by their slow start, a coaching change, a ridiculous injury list - and just the everyday madness of being the biggest sports stars in Hollywood.
Howard could be forgiven for wanting a break from this nuttiness. Instead, the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent wants more.
''Everybody counted us out,'' Howard said. ''But one thing that I told the guys was that we've been through so much as a team this year, from the injuries to the rumors and everything that has happened. It could have made us separate from each other, but we stayed strong, stayed together, and we won for each other. We're happy that we're in the playoffs, but we're not done yet.''
Those preseason expectations have been pretty much forgotten everywhere except the Lakers' locker room. Their massive struggles haven't dented the Lakers' belief in their fundamental talent, and they're grateful for a chance at a fresh start in the playoffs against the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs, who closed the season with seven losses in 10 games, including the Lakers' 91-86 win over them last Sunday.
''We'll continue with the spirit that we've been playing with,'' said Pau Gasol, who had two triple-doubles in the Lakers' final three games. ''We'll try and carry the momentum into the playoffs.''
The Lakers weren't about to get excited about facing Tim Duncan and Tony Parker instead of powerful Oklahoma City, but the Spurs certainly seem to be a more favorable matchup. Los Angeles didn't lock it down until surviving overtime against the Rockets, but the Staples Center crowd roared when the Lakers finally finished their fifth straight win.
''It pretty much sums up the whole season,'' said Antawn Jamison, the Lakers' top bench scorer despite a sprained right wrist. ''We went through a whole lot of adversity, but this team showed character. We stayed positive, we played together as a team, and we got it going.''
Indeed, just about everything went wrong this season for the Lakers, but they topped every misadventure last Friday when they lost Bryant. The NBA's third-leading scorer this season is immobilized at home in front of his television, blowing up his teammates' phones at halftime and tweeting into the early morning.
''And to think some said we wouldn't make it,'' Bryant tweeted Wednesday night.
The Lakers acquired Howard and Steve Nash last summer in moves designed to turn a good team into an immediate contender for a 17th NBA title. Never mind that nearly every champion in league history needed a significant stretch of togetherness and failure before raising a trophy: The Lakers' zealous worldwide fan base expected the same immediate success the club imagined.
The Lakers then had a winless preseason, and coach Mike Brown was abruptly fired after a slow start. Mike D'Antoni arrived on crutches and tried to figure out a way for the big, slow Lakers to play his small, quick style. It didn't work, and the Lakers slumped to 17-25 with a loss at Memphis on Jan. 23.
Beloved owner Jerry Buss then died in February, casting a pall on the rest of the season.
But the Lakers spent the rest of the season digging out of their hole, and not even Nash's prolonged absence or Bryant's late injury managed to slow them. Although the Lakers didn't finish in the Western Conference's top four for the first time since 2007, they still avoided the embarrassment of missing the playoffs for just the second time in Bryant's 17 NBA seasons.
Los Angeles' injury woes have been downright silly at times, with their top six scorers and key backups Steve Blake and Jordan Hill all enduring significant absences or major setbacks.
Nash's first season with the Lakers has been mostly terrible, with the two-time MVP struggling to fit into whatever Lakers offense was in vogue during his intermittent stretches of good health. The 39-year-old with a perpetually creaky body hasn't played in April, and nobody is certain whether he'll return in the postseason, although D'Antoni remains optimistic his former Phoenix point guard can get back in serviceable shape.
Gasol has recovered from a concussion and a serious foot injury this season, while Howard needed several months to get back to full strength after offseason back surgery and resulting conditioning problems. Howard shrugged off his limitations for most of the season, still playing strong defense and contributing sporadically on offense - both because of Bryant's ball dominance and Howard's inability to make free throws (49.2 percent).
During their day off Thursday before returning to practice for Sunday's playoff opener in Texas, the Lakers likely weren't thinking about everything that went wrong. They're focused on what could still go right in this unpredictable season.
''We still believe in ourselves,'' Gasol said. ''We have to hustle and play with the intensity and focus we're been playing with, and we're going to give ourselves a chance. We're going to stay in games, and who knows what's going to happen?''