CLEVELAND — Losers of 19 of their previous 22 games, it was logical to wonder if the Los Angeles Lakers could make anyone—themselves included—smile anymore.
So it was completely unexpected for Los Angeles to deliver an unforgettable victory Wednesday night.
The Lakers have had their share of circuses over the years. This was different: This crew of broken-down, sad clowns somehow came up with one of the greatest basketball shows on earth, albeit definitely of the novelty-act variety.
L.A. ran out of healthy bodies against the Cleveland Cavaliers, prompting Robert Sacre to stay in the game with six fouls. Thanks to an obscure NBA rule, the team was assessed a technical foul if he committed an additional personal foul.
Afterward, center Chris Kaman asked longtime Lakers Kurt Rambis and Gary Vitti if they’d ever seen anything like that. (They hadn’t.) Guard Kendall Marshall was so eager to share with the world what had just happened that he quizzed staffers in the locker room whether there was an NBA rule prohibiting him from tweeting immediately after the game.
Even the referees walking out of the arena were amazed, telling stories of the zaniest other games they’d ever worked.
“How crazy was that?” forward Nick Young asked reporters. “That’s the type of year we’re having.”
Young was talking about the injuries, including the one to his left knee that is scheduled for an MRI Thursday morning after being hurt in the second quarter.
The only Lakers to have played every game this season—Jodie Meeks and Jordan Hill—had gotten hurt Tuesday night and couldn’t play Wednesday. The only game Young has missed this season was because of league suspension, so it was akin to a horror movie’s predictable plot that he wound up the next man down.
Young was left to make up words about the injuries, marveling how Jordan Farmar in his first game back from his second hamstring strain suffered a calf cramp that led to his hamstring tightening yet again. Young referred to Jordan getting “re-hurt,” but it’s sadly more accurate to say Farmar’s hamstring was “re-re-hurt.”
The bottom line is that Farmar, who said he should be fine, was advised by L.A.'s trainers not to keep playing for fear of really re-re-hurting his hamstring. So Farmar yelled from the bench out to Sacre, who had five fouls with 4:03 left and was a critical player with Kaman having already fouled out.
“Don’t foul! Whatever you do, don’t foul!” Farmar said, smiling at the time.
Sacre smiled back and answered, “I got you, bro!” because the Lakers were still winning by 10, and the whole thing seemed ridiculous at the time.
Except then Cleveland’s C.J. Miles drove toward Sacre, who stood motionless for fear of a foul but was poorly positioned in the restricted area under the basket. There was the whistle: His sixth foul with 3:32 left. The Lakers had no subs.
“I’m in my mind, like, ‘Oh, dang,’” Sacre said later.
This was the moment when the clowns started to pour out of their tiny car.
Farmar immediately got to his feet with the intention of playing again, but Vitti, L.A.'s trainer, sent him away.
“I didn’t know half the rules,” Farmar said later, laughing.
In the locker room, Young was watching in shock with Steve Nash (sitting out to rest his nerve-damaged back after his first game in three months the previous night), Xavier Henry (knee), Meeks and Hill. Stars Kobe Bryant (knee) and Pau Gasol (groin) were back home in Los Angeles, also watching on TV, based on their Twitter accounts.
Young started to tell his injured teammates that he was willing to get out there if he had to. His knee was more than a minor problem, though.
“I couldn’t move on it,” Young said later.
Nash knew he could move—and he was also informed that he was actually on the active roster for the game. The only officially ineligible players were Bryant and Henry, whom the Lakers had somewhat haphazardly chosen to render inactive before the game.
The referees huddled on the court and sorted out the options for coach Mike D’Antoni. Asked after the game if it was the first time he’d encountered such a situation, D’Antoni said, “By far the first time.”
Amid all the confusion, Steve Blake proceeded to take his shorts completely off in front of the bench and put on a new pair. Few noticed given the circumstances, but I asked him afterward what was up with that, and he revealed three cuts on his body, the primary one on the back of his left hand.
“I had blood everywhere,” Blake said. “So I had blood on my shorts and I had to take those off and put new ones on.”
Fortunately for him, most everyone in Quicken Loans Arena was focused on the referees.
The last time this happened in an NBA game—the 2009-10 season finale between the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors—the referees had forced then-Golden State coach Don Nelson to put a somewhat injured Chris Hunter back into the game briefly, which upset Nelson greatly.
Proper procedure was followed after that, with Devean George allowed to come back into the game with six fouls.
When D’Antoni was told he could keep Sacre in at the mere cost of an extra technical foul if he committed another personal, the coach naturally went that route. The backup plan, D’Antoni said, would’ve been to send Farmar back out there to stand in the corner of the court. Summoning Nash and risking his health was completely off the grid for D’Antoni.
But as play resumed, Nash suddenly appeared at the end of the bench—in full uniform. And smiling.
He proceeded to joke to his teammates that unfortunately he had pulled his hamstring running from the locker room to the court and couldn’t play either.
In all seriousness, Nash was willing to go. In response to a scoffing Kaman on the bench at the time, Nash insisted, “I’ve been warming up the whole time.”
But with Sacre staying out of trouble, Blake with his bloodless shorts nailed two huge three-point shots to maintain control of the game.
Blake was also struggling through a bruised right thigh from a collision with Anderson Varejao earlier in the game...and a ruptured eardrum from the night before in Minnesota...and ongoing pain and weakness in his right elbow, where a torn ligament made him sit out from Dec. 13 until his return Tuesday.
Blake had missed all six three-pointers he’d tried since returning, but he proceeded to drill those two down the stretch and grab one last rebound to finish a remarkable triple-double game (11 points, 10 rebounds, 15 assists).
The night before, Blake had replied in the losing locker room, “Who cares,” to a query about his ruptured eardrum possibly causing some major pain on the flight from Minneapolis to Cleveland. After all the literal blood on top of all of his injuries, he smiled from the winning locker room this time and said, “My whole body hurts, actually.”
Blake undoubtedly earned more respect for his tremendous effort after injury, as did Farmar (21 points). And there was much more development from Sacre despite the fouls, and absolutely epic growth for rookie Ryan Kelly, who scored a career-high 26 points.
(Kelly also had an icepack on his right hand after the game. He assured me it was no big deal, but the horror-movie script indicates Kelly and Sacre are set to be the only two Lakers not to have missed a game because of injury this season...so beware.)
A lot of smiles, fun and intrigue from a game between two teams whose fans might prefer they lose for future draft position. You just never know. You play the games because you just never know what’s going to happen.
The lowly Lakers move on to play in Philadelphia Friday night.
Maybe Nash is going to celebrate his 40th birthday by swallowing swords, Blake will move on to being a human cannonball and Farmar will hit five more three-pointers while working the trapeze.