LOS ANGELES -- Five-and-a-half months after the Los Angeles Lakers tipped off with a $100 million payroll, four future Hall of Famers and one of the most decorated starting lineups ever assembled, the ball settled into the hands of Darius Morris, a second-year guard who scores four points per game and has been benched since February. That alone tells you nothing went as planned.
The 2012-13 Lakers were built to win 60 games, capture the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and walk away with the NBA championship. They gathered Wednesday, under all the banners and jerseys at Staples Center, united in a far simpler quest: to keep playing. As they warmed up, they discovered they were the No. 8 seed in the playoffs, and as Morris dribbled out the final seconds on a rollicking 99-95 overtime win against the Rockets, they leapfrogged to No. 7. The home crowd, treated to 16 titles over the years, roared as if they were in Charlotte and the postseason was some exotic foreign destination they never though they would see.
Steve Nash leapt off the bench in his impossibly slim suit and rushed to Morris. Pau Gasol hugged Dwight Howard and didn't let go. And about 60 miles south, in a Newport Beach man cave, they all had to imagine Kobe Bryant hopping around with his crutches. "We wanted to win it for him," said Jodie Meeks, who was 1 for 9 until a baseline dunk in the final minute of overtime. The Lakers have avoided the ultimate embarrassment, and while they won't get a banner for that, they will earn a date Sunday with the second-seeded Spurs. They are still a disappointment but no longer a disaster. "WE'RE IN," read the message on the white board in the home locker room. "WAY TO FIGHT THE FIGHT."
The Lakers have monopolized attention since Opening Night, mainly because of the turmoil that surrounded them, and Wednesday was no different. When every other game in the 2012-13 regular season was finished, the Lakers were pushed to overtime by a 34-foot three pointer at the buzzer by Rockets forward Chandler Parsons. Basketball's longest-running reality show would not end. The credits would not roll. D'Antoni said one of the players on the bench piped up: "It's been hard all year. This stuff has happened all year. So why was this any different? It's not going to be easy. Let's go out and win it."
Finally, Howard put a stop to the drama, as the Lakers always hoped he would do. He controlled the game on defense the way Bryant does on offense and the Lakers held the NBA's highest scoring team to just five points in overtime, after holding them to just 19 in the fourth quarter. Size is the Lakers' great advantage and only now are they maximizing it. Gasol and Howard combined for 38 rebounds and six blocks against the Rockets.
The Lakers have been infused with the same false sense of security filling every team that wins a couple games without its star. "It all feels good for a while," said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. The ball moves better and different players are featured more. "And then it goes back to normal," McHale said. "And you can't make up for what Kobe brings. We might be catching them in a little fantasy trip here." The Spurs have to wonder, though, how long the dream can last. Even though the Lakers are limited offensively without Bryant, they are hoping Nash returns Sunday, and he will be able to set up Howard and Gasol far better than Morris does.
While the Spurs have been resting, the Lakers have been churning, having won their last five games, eight of their last 10 and 28 of their last 40. They've essentially been in playoff mode since Jan. 23, when they fell to 18-25 after a loss in Memphis, and held a confrontational team meeting at Fed Ex Forum. "They had to play in elimination-like games every night," D'Antoni said. As the Lakers warmed up Wednesday, the center-hung scoreboard was broadcasting another game from Memphis, and the early arrivals at Staples Center cheered as the Grizzlies dribbled out a blowout of the Jazz. Just like that, the Lakers were finally and mercifully into the post-season. Players, however, barely broke from their routines. Gasol drove on Robert Sacre. Steve Blake launched a three-pointer. Howard took a free throw.
While many teams around the league were coasting, the Lakers and the Rockets delivered an inspired performance, all in order to avoid Oklahoma City. The Rockets will draw the Thunder, pitting James Harden against his former club. The Lakers will draw the Spurs, who they have played three times this season, to a cumulative point differential of zero. For a $100 million team, making the postseason doesn't seem like much of an accomplishment, unless you consider some of the injuries sustained by that acclaimed starting lineup: torn labrum and torn fascia, torn Achilles and torn meniscus, broken leg and concussion.
The best thing you can say about the '12-13 Lakers is they kept playing, and they haven't stopped.