Regular season comes to eventful end
After the Lakers closed the door on the regular season and perhaps on the Sacramento Kings by blowing a 20-point, fourth-quarter lead, being rescued by Kobe Bryant’s heroics, and breaking the locals' hearts one last time with a 116-108 overtime victory, a simple question was put to Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
Can you guys do anything easy?
"No," a smiling Jackson said. "We’re bipolar."
Not even booking a trip to the Big Easy was easy on Wednesday night, as the Lakers secured the second seed and a first-round Western Conference series against New Orleans, whom they beat four times in the regular season.
Then again, if a circus atmosphere arrives with the playoffs, nobody is better at living under the big top.
Consider the last 24-hour-or-so news cycle, or just another day in Lakerland:
• Andrew Bynum’s MRI exam, the one that caused an entire city’s heart to flutter, reveals no serious damage after he hobbled off the court Tuesday, a towel over his head, after hyperextending his knee. The ensuing sigh of relief in the Los Angeles area is categorized by weathermen as an El Niño.
• Kobe Bryant is fined $100,000 and admonished by commissioner David Stern after cameras caught him shouting a gay slur at referee Bennie Adams on Tuesday night. Bryant later apologizes, perhaps for the first time ever after taking a shot.
• Steve Blake comes down with chicken pox, forcing the Lakers to call up Trey Johnson from the D-League. Welcome kid, say a few Hail Marys and go guard Chris Paul.
• Matt Barnes’ surgically repaired knee swells up in his sleep, forcing him to undergo another MRI exam. Good news again for the Lakers, who head into the playoffs on a two-MRI winning streak.
• The Lakers walk into an emotionally charged Arco Arena for what is perhaps the Kings’ last game in Sacramento before moving to Anaheim. It is so loud, it is hard to hear a cowbell ring.
“It’s been a very unusual ending,” Phil Jackson observed as the regular season came to a close.
Especially the ending. The Lakers, without Barnes, Blake and Bynum, had forged a 91-71 lead. Then they were out on their feet, watching Samuel Dalembert turn into Moses Malone on the boards and watching their own shots clank off the rim. They missed 15 of 17 shots to end the fourth quarter and turned the ball over four times.
The sellout crowd, which was dotted with signs alternately thanking the Kings and beseeching them not to leave for Anaheim, urged their team on. Chants of “De-fense” and “Beat L.A.” left the arena rocking and the Lakers looking shaken.
Then Bryant rescued them with a game-tying 3-pointer with 4.8 seconds left and a block of Marcus Thornton’s potential game-winner. In overtime, Bryant scored five of his 36 points and handed out three assists.
Bryant understood as well as any the poignancy of the moment.
He was here in 2002, when the Lakers beat the Kings in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, a defeat that capped an epic series and sent Sacramento on a slow tumble toward the bottom of the conference.
“I told Phil it’s fitting that it’s going to end this way,” Bryant said. “It just didn’t seem like a blowout victory here was going to happen just because of the history we have. It winds up being history revisited.”
The end of the day was much better than the beginning for Bryant. When the TNT Tuesday night broadcast caught Bryant mouthing a slur after he angrily went to the bench after picking up a technical foul, the clip was widely circulated Wednesday morning over the Internet, leaving viewers to wonder, “Did he really say that?”
The NBA said it was looking into it, and by midday, Bryant had issued a statement saying, “My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period. The words expressed do NOT reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian communities and were NOT meant to offend anyone.”
Later in the day, Bryant was fined $100,000 by the NBA, with Stern calling Bryant’s outburst “offensive and inexcusable.”
Bryant spoke by telephone to Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese to apologize.
Bryant called Wednesday “a tough day” and said it was important for he and other players to remember how many people are watching their actions. “I don’t stand for that,” he said.
For those close to the floor, there seemed to be an acceptance that these things are said in the heat of the moment.
“A lot of things get said on the court,” Lamar Odom said.
Jackson expressed regret that the cameras caught Bryant and hoped that any controversy would blow over quickly.
There were certainly other things for him to be worried about. Bynum and Barnes both could be ready for the start of the playoffs, but Jackson acknowledged that Bynum’s condition won’t truly be known until he is able to get back on the practice court. (The Lakers are not expected to practice until Friday.)
"We’re optimistic," Jackson said. "Obviously we got a reading that sounds good. But let’s still get him on the court playing at the level he left."
After getting worked over early by Sacramento rookie center DeMarcus Cousins, who later was ejected, Pau Gasol may have wanted to send Bynum a get-well card.
"We need him out there," Odom said. "Just his presence alone is a huge bonus for us, but if he’s at full strength we’re a much better defensive team. The proof is in the pudding."
Blake’s return is less certain — and also could be crucial.
Though Blake has not had the impact the Lakers anticipated — he was given a longer, more lucrative contract than Derek Fisher — he was expected to be valuable in the playoffs for his defensive quickness.
Jackson said Blake could be out at least a week, meaning that Fisher won’t have much cover chasing guards such as Hornets star point guard Chris Paul. Shannon Brown is likely to get the first crack at it, and perhaps then Johnson, who scored six points and ran the offense well in nine minutes.
And the Lakers are expected to take every precaution before Blake returns: Three Lakers — Bynum, Bryant and Ron Artest — never have contracted chicken pox and therefore would be more vulnerable, though Bryant said he received a vaccination as a child.
There were more than a few fans on Wednesday night who wished a pox on the Kings’ owners, Joe and Gavin Maloof. They were not at the game, instead traveling to New York where they were preparing to present their case to the NBA’s Board of Governors on Thursday that the team should be allowed to move to Anaheim.
The Kings need a simple majority of the league’s 30 teams, though the Lakers and Clippers will be two who vote against it. Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, the former Phoenix Suns star and native son, will speak at the league meeting.
What might have helped Johnson most was to transport the owners here on Wednesday. There was little anger, but resignation seemed pervasive. One sign read: “OC is 4 housewives, not for Kings.”
When the game was over, Sacramento coach Paul Westphal walked out on the court to applaud the fans, and 30 minutes later several thousand remained as they cheered for players who came back out on the court.
Soon, they chanted “Here we stay” — a rallying cry for the campaign to keep the team.
Amid the scene, music filled the background. For a while, it was the Rolling Stones, a track that surely hit home for those left in the building.
(Can’t get no) Satisfaction.