Kobe Bryant was right about his guarantee. The Lakers made the
playoffs. He didn't need to be present to see it happen on the last day of the
Then the Lakers one-upped him, turning their good start to Wednesday evening into a better one, the equivalent of improving their hand in Texas hold 'em.
The Lakers beat the Houston Rockets in overtime, 99-95, earned a first-round playoff series against San Antonio and managed to avoid top-seeded Oklahoma City, a horrible matchup for almost every Western Conference team, especially them.
So the seventh-seeded Lakers (45-37) begin a best-of-seven series Sunday at No. 2-seeded San Antonio, the team they defeated last Sunday, 91-86, and played well against in two close losses this season (by two points in November and three in January).
Like the Lakers, the Spurs (58-24) have an older nucleus. And they're dinged up. Tony Parker was slowed late in the season because of shin, neck and ankle injuries. Manu Ginobili hasn't played since March 29 because of a hamstring injury. He is expected to return later this month.
Game 2 is Wednesday in San Antonio. Games 3 and 4 will be April 26 and 28 at Staples Center.
The Lakers clinched a playoff spot before Wednesday's tipoff when ninth-place Utah lost to Memphis, 86-70. Pau Gasol owed his brother, Marc, a thank you. And the Lakers owed Zach Randolph, of all people, some random acts of kindness after he had 25 points and 19 rebounds against the Jazz.
The Lakers, though, wanted to: a) carry momentum into the playoffs with a fifth consecutive victory; b) face San Antonio; and c) avoid Oklahoma City, where they are winless in their last six trips, including an 0-3 mark in last season's West semifinals. Average margin of defeat: 14 points.
They also wanted to avoid missing the postseason for only the fifth time since moving to Los Angeles in 1960.
They did it by clamping down on the NBA's highest-scoring offense coming into Wednesday, stuffing the Rockets in the fourth quarter and overtime, where they made a combined nine of 28 shots (32%).
Gasol had his second triple-double this month, finishing with 17 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists.
"Can the talk of trading Pau Gasol come to a cease now?" Bryant said via Twitter in the final minute of overtime, presumably from his home while recovering from surgery for a torn Achilles' tendon.
Steve Blake (24 points) had another solid night, putting together the most points he'd ever scored in consecutive games (47).
Blake smiled when reminded of Bryant's playoff guarantee.
"Kobe knows it all," he said. "It just shows how much he believed in us as players and teammates. I think all of us believed it. We couldn't quite come out and guarantee it like he does."
Dwight Howard made only six of 15 shots but had 17 points, 18 rebounds and four blocked shots. He also became the youngest player in NBA history to take 9,000 rebounds in his career.
The Lakers shot 36.5% in beating San Antonio last Sunday. They shot 36.7% against Houston. They miss Bryant, undoubtedly.
Howard tried to lighten the mood before tipoff, offering a pep talk for reporters in a mock warrior voice from the movie "300."
"They don't think we can do it," he said. "There's 300 of us against all the Persians. We've got to come out tonight. We've got to look death in the eye and say we don't care if we die. We go hard. Kobe's watching us at home, Dr. [Jerry] Buss is watching us on high. Let's put it out tonight, everything we've got. Everything! Leave it on the floor.
"Pau, put your big-boy pants on. Dwight, hit your free throws! Jodie [Meeks], hit those threes, boy. Bring it in! Yeah! Hoo-rah."
Howard then added that his "Persians" reference was from the movie, not a present-day slam.
The Lakers were 17-25 at one point, finishing their season with a 28-12 push.
Gasol said they felt like they've been battling in the playoffs the last 10 games.
The truth is easy to say: Now comes the hard part.
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