Heisler’s NBA Power Rankings After Week 24

Kobe Bryant and Dwight HowardTonight at midnight, like I do every year at this time, I will face East, toward Springfield, Mass., and give a prayer of Thanksgiving.

Thank heavens that’s over!

I mean to tell you, it was a long season out here in the place I named Lakerdom – or actually stole from Lester Hayes, the great cornerback and quote machine who made up Raiderdom.

Of course, Lakerdom now vies for its very existence with Clipper Nation, which used to put in rare appearances, like a submarine on a brief stopover.

We thought seasons were long when the Lakers would start 11-0 or 10-1, prompting half the local talk radio guys to predict they would break the Bulls’ record of 72 wins, whereupon the team would put it on cruise control and chill the rest of the way, giving Shaquille O’Neal time to play himself into shape, or Andrew Bynum a chance to recover from his annual January injury.

This was a different kind of long season. Boredom was no longer the problem. Competence was.

Remember when everyone said the pressure would be on Mike Brown with their can’t-miss Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard-Steve Nash nucleus, picked to win the West by 35 of 45 ESPN experts?

Brown lasted five games, including four losses, and Nash was lost through Christmas.

Then, you may remember, they were going to hire Phil Jackson … until the last second, when they hired Mike D’Antoni in the last decision by owner Jerry Buss, who passed away in February.

The Lakes then started 12-20 under D’Antoni, unable to come close to running his offense, amid signs Howard – who refused to as much as hint he hoped to stay – wasn’t on the same page with Bryant, or Nash, or anyone.

This was before Howard went to the All-Star Game and did his imitation of Bryant for West teammates before Kobe walked into the dressing room, sending everyone home tittering about the New Laker Feud.

Happily for the Lakers, Howard came back from the break in a new frame of mind, possibly because the backlash had gotten back to him. In any case, he began a relationship with Bryant that has only warmed since and went back to playing some semblance of his old game.

Then came two months of Ultimate Kobe Hero Ball, exceptional even for him and peaking in April when he averaged 30.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 7.5 assists, shot 44 percent and sat out 17 minutes total.

The last three of those 17 came against the Warriors, when he went to the floor for the third time in the final quarter and got up to find he had torn an Achilles tendon. That ended his season, after he made his two free throws of course.

In a mild surprise, the Lakes came from behind twice in the last two minutes to beat the Warriors. In a bigger surprise, they beat the Spurs here two nights later with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker playing.

And in the biggest surprise of all, the Lakers have actually become a team, even if not quite a great one.

At the beginning of the 27-12 run they take into tonight’s season finale vs. Houston, they looked like they were on a playground, with Bryant taking over in the fourth quarter … or third, or second, or the opening tip.

Now, even without Bryant, they have a scary offense with Pau Gasol and Howard in a high-low set, having a merry time playing over opponents’ heads.

Unfortunately, they still don’t defend very well, and even worse against super-athletic teams (like the Thunder) or ones that spread you out (like the Spurs).

On the other hand, the Lakers are no longer a house divided and they do compete.

One more win and Lakerdom will go on as if they just won another title, almost.

If the joy doesn’t long last past the opening tip in Oklahoma City or San Antonio, hey, it could have been worse. And was, very recently.

On to the rankings.

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