It wasn't until they beat the Houston Rockets in the final game of the regular season to secure the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoff bracket that I became reinvested in the Slowtime Lakers.
In fact, I still can't decide what was more impressive, if not indicative, of the win: the fact that they competed so hard despite having already secured a playoff berth via a Utah Jazz loss earlier that night, or that the win itself legitimately put the Lakers in a position to succeed by helping them avoid the only two teams (and this is just my personal opinion) they don't have a prayer of beating (OKC and LA Clippers) for at least the first two rounds.
The answer is probably both.
But because I'm an uber-nerd when it comes to the NBA, I've never found answers quite as compelling as questions. And if there is one question that stands out among the millions of others that have been thrown around this team all season long, it's this: Can the thin-as-floss Angeles Lakers rise from Kobe Bryant's shadow?
It's a tough call, really.
On one hand, their offensive potential is painstakingly limited, their bench has slightly less NBA talent than a Kardashian dinner table, and Dwight Howard's post moves typically leave me wondering just how badly the average player needs to pee at any given moment in time.
Yet, on the other, not only might they have the two most naturally gifted offensive and defensive big men in the NBA, but Kobe Bryant's absence in the playoffs also works for them in two obvious ways.
1. It reduces any level of expectation on how well they should do. (They are basically playing with house money at this point, which is why Mitch Kupchak went on record this week to say Mike D'Antoni will return as coach next season.)
2. It gives everyone a chance to finally earn their way into a spotlight that is as big as any in professional sports.
Just look at what the past few games have done for Pau Gasol's stock in LA.
And now, even the Black Mamba himself couldn't help but tweet his hiss of approval on the big man's recent play:
Mind you, there is a bigger quotient to this picture that I have yet to address, and their name is the San Antonio Spurs.
But, as ridiculous as it sounds, I don't think the fact that Tony Parker was throwing up as impressive of an MVP campaign as anyone in the league this side of LeBron James before he got injured will be the biggest factor.
I don't think the fact that Tim Duncan looks like he stepped into a time machine and has averaged 18 PPG, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks on 50 percent field-goal shooting in only 30 minutes of play all season will be either.
And, you know what, I don't think coaching will be, even though it stands as the biggest mismatch the Lakers will see all series.
When I picture this matchup playing out, I have a weird image of every Laker player seeing nothing but Kobe Bryant's mug prominently emblazoned on every freaking body on the court that's wearing a San Antonio Spurs jersey, almost like a bobblehead doll.
I see Dwight Howard backing down Tiago Splitter in the post, when, suddenly, he gets stricken with Mamba-vision, and there is Kobe mocking his Fruit Loop-version of a sky hook, saying things like: "Yeah, LA will never love you the way they loved me or even the way they loved Shaq. Speaking of which, 'CAN YOU DIG IT'?!"
I see Pau Gasol outside the paint, wide open for a 20-foot jump shot as his man runs back to recover and falling into a brief stupor as Kobe begins to appear, asking him how he's managed to form a career of making jump shots despite needing him to hold his hand in order to do anything on the court.
At the end of the day, when any of us think about the Los Angeles Lakers, we think of No. 24 and No. 24 only.
Which is really to say—especially with the kind of impact a driving force can have in the playoffs—if you're picking the Spurs to advance, that you're just plain out of your mind.
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