There is an alternate universe somewhere in which the Lakers stayed healthy, and people still speak of them as Finals contenders.
Must be a nice place.
Friday night at Staples Center, the Lakers took the floor short Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, and Jodie Meeks, with Metta World Peace playing one-legged after having fluid drained from his surgically repaired left knee earlier that afternoon, and a starting backcourt consisting of a point guard who should have just finished his senior season at Michigan (Darius Morris) next to a guy who wasn’t in the league two weeks ago (Andrew Goudelock).
The Lakers, who intended to have Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Nash, World Peace, and Bryant as the core of their team, finished the third quarter with Morris, Chris Duhon, Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison, and Jordan Hill.
In a playoff game.
Against Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker.
And in this universe, that can only mean one thing: Final score, 120-89, the worst home playoff loss in franchise history. San Antonio up 3-0 in the series.
“I thought our guys played as hard as they could play,” head coach Mike D’Antoni said after. “but they ran out of gas toward the end.”
No surprise, since they started the game with maybe a quarter tank. Helplessness is a strange quality to find in a Lakers locker room, but despite all the expected keep-the-chin-up-take-it-one-game-at-a-timeism dispensed there Friday, that was most distinctive vibe in the aftermath. The Lakers have zero chance of shocking the world, of paying off the “AGAINST ALL ODDS” mantra scrawled on the whiteboard notifying them of an 11:30 am report time for Saturday. And they know it, even while trying to block it out.
It was evident before the game, in the way D’Antoni responded when asked who would start in the backcourt. “Uuuuuuhhhhh,” he said, “It’ll be Darius Morris, and Andrew Goudelock,” he replied. (Followed by a pregnant pause as everyone in the room, D’Antoni included, absorbed the reality of this team starting Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock in a playoff game.)
Who handles the ball?
“Morris, because he knows the plays,” D’Antoni replied.
It was evident in who was interviewed after, and more importantly who wasn’t. Empty stalls for Bryant, Nash, and Blake. World Peace’s filled with World Peace, yes, but while there announcing he wouldn’t be able to go in Game 4 (but promising he’ll feel much better by the time this series resumes in San Antonio).
The Lakers rightly would have been underdogs against the methodical, fundamentally sound Spurs anyway, even had Bryant not snapped his Achilles or hamstring problems robbed L.A. of its top two point guards. Without those guys, short of Pop’s gang getting lazy and overlooking Los Angeles (good luck with that) or going incredibly cold (nope – San Antonio shot over 61 percent) the Lakers had literally no chance of winning. This despite getting a best-case performance out of the inexperienced pair of guards, as Goudelock and Morris combined for 44 points on 17-for-34 shooting from the floor. Howard added 25, and Gasol had a triple-double.
The Lakers were far too leaky at the other end.
“It is difficult because we have lineups out there that we’re not accustomed to, and it’s hard to get on the same page right way. So as much as everybody is trying, tonight there were too many breakdowns, especially on the defensive end. They just got too many great looks, and they shot really well. It’s definitely a challenge,” Gasol said.
“We’re extremely short-handed. We’ve been murdered by injuries, and it’s tough to overcome that.”
Tonight, and all season. Faced with bigger picture questions of how they got to this point, nearly to a man players reflected — careful always not to say it’s over — at how absurdly difficult a season this has been, mentally and physically. One coach fired, another hired. A legendary owner dies. A would-be starting lineup playing 189 minutes together, about 1,100 less than Oklahoma City’s starters thanks to the relentless drumbeat of injury. Unhappy talent, dueling egos, sniping between coaches and players, and, more than anything, a whole lot more losing than anyone expected. The Lakers worked hard down the stretch just to make the top eight, playing basically a month’s worth of playoff games before the postseason actually started and just when it seemed like maybe — maybe — a little bit of that early season hope and potential might return, Bryant (of all people) went down.
Technically speaking, the patient is still alive, but that won’t stop the autopsy from starting. How much blame does D’Antoni deserve? The front office? Howard? Bryant? Nash? Can this group, if healthy, contend next year? How would a sweep impact D’Antoni’s future? Or Howard’s?
So many questions to answer, so much blame to apportion. For now, though, there’s still the lingering disappointment at what a waste of potential the year turned out to be.
“The thing about it, it’s just so disappointing because this is a talented group of guys,” Jamison said. “That’s the toughest thing. That’s the thing that makes it hard to swallow. It’s not like we’re the bottom team and we’re trying to figure it out. This is a very talented group that definitely should be playing better than what we’re playing.”
The team and its fans have been waiting all season for the basketball gods to smile upon them.
Sunday, they’ll likely oblige … by ending it.
Brian and Andy Kamenetzky are sportswriters and radio hosts who have worked in sports media for over a decade. They have covered the Lakers and the NBA for eight seasons, for both the LATimes.com and ESPN.com, as well as ESPN The Magazine. Follow them on Twitter at @KamBrothers.