It was the last game on the last night of the regular season — and nobody wanted it to end. Not the fans in Sacramento, who were loud and would not leave at the end of a wild game. Wild in every way — the shots were wild, the setting was wild, that this last game had high stakes for playoff seeds was wild. And the ending was wild.
The Lakers were ahead 18 points at the start of the fourth quarter and were cruising past Sacramento and into the second seed when the Kings started to show the fight their fans have shown in an effort to save their team — not their politicians, not their leaders, not the Kings’ owners, but the fans — and they battled back. The Kings outscored the Lakers 29-11 and had it not been for a vintage Kobe Bryant dagger in the heart of Kings fans, Sacramento might have won. But, of course, the Lakers did in overtime. You expected otherwise?
Still, the Kings shined a light on the flaws of the two-time defending champions. What makes them vulnerable in the playoffs, which is most often themselves and their focus.
And it’s that way with the contenders — there is no clear dominant team this season. Every top team in both conferences is flawed. Others are built to expose those weaknesses.
It means as unpredictable a playoffs as the NBA has seen in years. And that may make it the most fun in a long time.
First, let’s clear up the playoff matches in the West, which were in doubt until 1:15 a.m. ET Thursday.
With the win, the Lakers are the No. 2 seed in the West and they will take on the Hornets in the first round (Chris Paul and Kobe in a battle of stars).
The Mavericks are the No. 3 seed and will face a Portland team that has a real shot to win that series. The Thunder, with their surprising overtime loss to the Bucks at home on Wednesday, are the fourth seed and will take on the Nuggets in what promises to be another first-round barn-burner.
Somebody is going to get upset in the West in the first round. Wild and unpredictable. We’re telling you.
Which is fitting — the entire season has been that way. LeBron James and the Miami Heat alternated between blowing our doors off and struggling to look like they were a threat to anyone. There was the explosion of Derrick Rose from good to jaw-dropping MVP. The move of Carmelo Anthony from Denver to New York. Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams leaving Utah. The Knicks returning to respectability. The resurgence of the San Antonio Spurs. Blake Griffin dunking everything in sight and making the Clippers a must-watch.
And the Kings sadly leaving Sacramento — with a Kobe Bryant dagger in their back.
Now the playoffs come and there is not one team you can point at and say “nobody is going to match up with them.” The Lakers may be the closest thing — they have Kobe and the ridiculously long skilled front line — but they are not as deep as previous seasons. As many around the league say — and as they showed against Sacramento in the fourth quarter Wednesday — the Lakers are the biggest threat to the Lakers. On any given night they can lose focus and lose to anyone.
Boston? They traded away Kendrick Perkins, which may not matter if Shaquille O’Neal can be healthy for the playoffs, but that’s a risk. Plus, they have looked older as the season dragged on, and Rajon Rondo is doing lord knows what lately. Do they have one more run? Can the resurgent Knicks put a real scare into them in the first round?
Miami has the three great players, but will the lack of depth around them get exposed in the playoffs? Orlando made big trades this season to bring in Gilbert Arenas and bring back Hedo Turkoglu, but did they really get better?
And Chicago, no team has played harder all season than them. But there are questions around the league if what we have seen is the best of them — Boston and veteran teams have another gear for the playoffs, does Chicago?
San Antonio runs its offense through Manu Ginobili (how healthy is he?) and Tony Parker now. They have a good supporting cast, but will their not-as-strong defense catch up with them? Can they make one more run with an older core?
Oklahoma City’s core is young, and they addressed a real need by getting Kendrick Perkins. But are they still too young? Do they have the role players that can step up and make the big plays now?
It’s a lot of questions, legitimate questions for every contender.
Let’s get some answers. Let’s start the playoffs.