LOS ANGELES — Maybe it was every Laker knowing they had to step up their game with Kobe Bryant sidelined.
Maybe it was the desperation of a Lakers team trying to salvage something from a train wreck season, playing much harder than a Spurs team Gregg Popovich described as “floating” through the game
Maybe it was the law of averages — eventually somebody had to hit a shot after a rough first three-quarters of the game. It just happened to be the Lakers.
Whatever the reason the Lakers found the stroke from three when it mattered — the Lakers hit 5-of-9 threes in the fourth — and finished with a 91-86 win over San Antonio that makes the playoffs likely for them — their magic number is now one.
Utah has to beat Minnesota on Monday and Memphis on Tuesday (both on the road) or the Lakers are in. And even if the Jazz do that, the Lakers are still in if they beat the Rockets Wednesday. There are scenarios where the Lakers could finish with the six or seven seed, although smart money says they are eighth.
The Lakers are going to need to play better to do any damage in the playoffs — not harder though. You can’t question the Lakers’ effort.
“The Lakers played with a log of energy obviously for a lot of different reasons and tonight we didn’t match that,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said.
That would be the Parker who was 1-10 shooting for 4 points on the night and was on the bench when the game mattered in the fourth quarter.
“It wasn’t because he was resting, he was playing awful,” coach Popovich said of why he benched Parker down the stretch.
It wasn’t just Parker, this was just a flat out sloppy game. Especially for the first three quarters: The score was 61-61 entering fourth, with the Spurs shooting 33.3 percent, the Lakers 31.8 percent through the first three. Pau Gasol shot 3-of-17 on the night. Some of that was good defense, a lot of it was just guys missing good looks.
But when it mattered, the Lakers made shots — they shot 52.6 percent overall and hit 5-of-9 threes in the fourth. Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks each knocked down two threes in the fourth.
The Lakers wouldn’t have been in position for the win if it wasn’t for Dwight Howard. He was aggressive from the opening tip, working to establish his position on the block, bullying his way to the rim, running the floor and being active on defense. The Lakers looked like a pretty conventional team in the first half working inside out. Howard finished with 26 points and 17 rebounds.
Steve Blake also stepped up with 18 points in the first quarter, forcing the Spurs to adjust and put a better defender in Danny Green on him in the second half. The Spurs also started to double Howard, but that is when Jamison and Meeks hit key shots.
As for the Spurs, this almost certainly assures they are the two seed — Oklahoma City would need to lose its last two and the Spurs would need to win out to get that top spot.
But there was more to it than that and a clearly frustrated Popovich knew it. San Antonio is 5-5 in its last 10 games. Tim Duncan showed up to ball —23 points and 10 rebounds — but the rest of the Spurs seemed taken aback by the Lakers desperate energy.
“We didn’t match their energy at all, I just though we sort of floated through the game…” Popovich said. “(Duncan was) really the only guy on the team that played like somebody who wanted to win a championship. I thought other than that the group was in float most of the night. Again, a lot of that was because of the Lakers energy.”
The Lakers know that the rough start they had in this game needs to smooth out and they need to play better going forward. But they will take the win.
“We’ve seen teams where their star player goes out and they play with a ton of energy, you get a couple wins,” Blake said. “It’s when the teams start figuring you out and see what you’re running now that you’re gone that it starts to get tougher. We’re going to have to be prepared for that.”