It’s been there for the past seven months now – an early end to the season. It’s been staring this Laker team in the face since their new star player, Dwight Howard, walked in still recovering from back surgery. Then it came at them full force when All-Star, two-time MVP, Steve Nash, played 16 minutes in just the second game of the regular season, and then sat out the next 24 games after suffering a lower left leg fracture. Next up came an abdominal injury to Nash’s back-up, Steve Blake, who missed 37 games. Pau Gasol suffered tendinitis in both of his knees, a concussion and torn plantar fascia in his right foot for a total of 33 missed games. Jordan Hill went down in the beginning of the year due to an injury in his left hip that forced him to miss 53 games. With the regular season winding down, Metta World Peace tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee and sat out six games. Antawn Jamison sprained his right wrist and Earl Clark had a sore right foot during the season, and to cap it all off before the playoffs, Kobe Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon. And that’s not even the end of it. In the post-season, Nash and Blake played Games 1 and 2 but sat out the final two games with hamstring and leg injuries respectively. Jodie Meeks sprained his left ankle in Game 1 and didn’t play the rest of the series. MWP, who came back much too soon from having his torn meniscus repaired, also sat out the final game against the Spurs (thanks to Mike Trudell at Lakers.com for breaking down this litany of woe for us).
Now this – swept by the San Antonio Spurs who are, simply, a superior team in many respects (especially when it comes to relative health). How this series played out wasn’t a surprise, considering the physical (and probably mental) state that the Lakers were in. Battered and broken all season long, how was this season supposed to end? Still, as a fan, until the final buzzer sounded in the deciding game, there was always hope for a comeback, no matter how improbable.
But the buzzer sounded, all right, signaling the end of a third disappointing season in a row.
Kobe Bryant – When the most exciting part of the game is Kobe Bryant walking into the arena on his crutches, then you know the things weren’t going well. But he did so in the second half to a standing ovation of fans who know that this 0-3 series hole wouldn’t be so had he not fallen to injury. And Bryant didn’t just sit there and watch. Despite the team being down by a seemingly impossible deficit from which to climb out, he continued to be who he has been to the team all season long. After a timeout, in which he was part of the huddle, he gave Darius Morris some advice, gesturing to points on the court before the young guard had to check back in. After Pau Gasol checked out of the game, Bryant put both his hands on Gasol’s shoulders, showing the Spaniard the support that he has shown consistently since he arrived five seasons ago. How could the Lakers possibly get through the playoffs, get through the first round, with the heart and soul of their team sitting at home with his left leg elevated? Tonight’s loss against the Spurs wasn’t the final blow that ended the Lakers’ season. The final knockout came six games ago when Kobe Bryant was injured.
Dwight Howard – “Sometimes when things don’t go your way,” Howard said, “sometimes you react the wrong way, Just have to learn to keep my cool.” It was the only ending the All-Star center could come up with. In a season that failed to live up to all the expectations, Howard was ejected from the game and escorted off the floor as one of the more disappointing parts of this Laker season. Was he being unfairly and too aggressively fouled without detriment to the other team? After re-watching both causes of his two technicals? Yes he was. Could he have reacted differently? Yes, he could have and should have. But that’s all that Howard’s season has been filled with – coulda, shoulda, wouldas. His team needed him in this series, in this game. Seven points, eight rebounds, one assist and two technical, however, do not a victory make. There’s no telling whether Howard played his final game in a Laker uniform tonight, but no matter his jersey color next season, a courses on mental toughness might be in order.
Turnovers – 16 in the first half alone and 22 for the game. 22 turnovers that resulted in 24 points for the Spurs. In a 21-point loss, it’s not hard to figure out what the Lakers could have done better (taking care of the ball would have been a great start).
Another Early Exit – And we thought reaching just the second round of the playoffs in the previous two seasons was disappointing.
Even Spurs’ coach, Gregg Popovich, felt some sympathy for the Lakers.
“It wasn’t a fair fight,” he said after the game. “But they came to play every night. The guys that replaced hurt people played their [butts] off.”
Coach Mike D’Antoni seconded the notion.
“They fought as hard as they could fight,” he said. “And…I appreciated it. I hate that injuries started mounting up.”
The Lakers showed a lot of fight. Despite being 17-25 at one point, eight games under .500 and sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference, they clawed their way to get to the seventh seed, finished off their regular season with a 28-12 record, and 7-1 in April, all while battling every sort of catastrophe they could endure – injuries, Jerry Buss’ death, and then more injuries. Each week (and sometimes each game), saw a different rotation of players, different game plans, different feats to overcome. In the end, however, there was nothing left with which to fight.
This Lakers’ season was like riding a rowboat on a river that led to a waterfall in the end. In the backs of our minds, we knew this injury-ridden season wasn’t leading anywhere good, but we wanted this team to try rowing out the current anyway, and they did.
Now comes the most nerve-wracking part of the season – the off-season and all the uncertainty that accompanies it. What will this team look like in October? The coaching staff – will Mike D’Antoni really get another crack at this team? The roster – was Pau Gasol’s standing ovation his last in a Laker uniform??Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers’ front office have their work cut out for them, and all we can hope for is to have another real chance at going at it again in 2014.
Until then, LakerNation – thank you for journeying through the season with us. We’ll keep you updated as the road to recovery (physically and mentally) moves on. #GoLakers