LOS ANGELES — It was just one voice in a crowd that sold out Staples Center, making it feel like the good ol’ days of a big game and a resounding win, if only for one night.
The matchup Tuesday night between the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers was well-decided, with Phil Jackson and Jeanie Buss’ first head-to-head presidential showdown going so shockingly in Buss’ favor that the couple skipped the fourth quarter to drive home early to Playa del Rey.
And then the one voice yelled out in a quiet moment:
“Phil Jackson sucks!”
Sure didn’t expect to hear that one going into the game.
It was a reminder, same as that weird Feb. 5 game against the Cleveland Cavaliers—where the Lakers ran out of eligible players but still won—that you never know what you’re going to get.
For Lakers fans, you might still get something good.
Here was Jackson, so celebrated by both organizations these days that he felt obligated to seclude himself in a luxury box instead of using a public seat at the arena, and here was Carmelo Anthony, potentially having his pick of the two teams come free agency this summer.
Both were on the Knicks’ side here, New York having won eight of its past nine, and a depleted Lakers team offering Jordan Hill ($3.5 million) as its highest-paid player while Mike D’Antoni was booed upon being introduced as Lakers coach.
Yet out of nowhere came this night of resounding Lakers pride.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter for a team out of the playoff picture, but it absolutely matters for a franchise trying to maintain its dignity.
For the Lakers’ previous game Sunday night against the Orlando Magic, the attendance was 17,803. Staples Center holds 18,997 for Lakers games.
No, it wasn’t the smallest crowd ever for a Lakers game at Staples, but it was the smallest since the arena’s opening season of 1999-00. Crowds have been understandably dwindling of late amid all the losing and with no Kobe Bryant on the court.
The Lakers’ 320-game sellout streak ended early this season—with Bryant sitting out—and before selling out against the Knicks, they actually had consecutive non-sellouts Sunday against Orlando and Friday against the Washington Wizards. The amazing thing is that the Lakers had already had back-to-back non-sellouts earlier this month (against the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers).
Against that backdrop came this 127-96 domination of the Knicks.
This was a night that began with veteran center Chris Kaman barely able to keep his disdain for D’Antoni from gushing out in a pregame interview session. It still leaked out a bit, with Kaman, the fill-in starter on Tuesday for ill Pau Gasol, revealing D’Antoni hadn’t spoken to him in three weeks.
This was a game that featured rookie Ryan Kelly going out to represent the Lakers for the pregame captains’ meeting with the referees. No injured Bryant, no ill Gasol, no gimpy Steve Nash…no captain for this team at all, really.
This was an 8-0 Knicks lead…
And then suddenly it was D’Antoni’s offense in perfect rhythm, courtesy of a point-guard-less crew of Xavier Henry, Nick Young, Kent Bazemore, Kelly and Robert Sacre. And then it was a freakish third quarter in which the Lakers scored 51 points, the most during one period in team history, and outscored the Knicks by 20.
(This being D’Antoni, the hilarious stat from that historic quarter: The Lakers defense still let the Knicks shoot 57 percent with only one turnover.)
Soon enough, the “OneWest Bank Lakers Player of the Game” was being announced over the arena public-address system early in the fourth quarter, and lo and behold, it was Chris Kaman!
That might’ve been an even more surprising development than the “Phil Jackson sucks!” offering.
No matter that the other 18,996 at Staples agreed that Jackson most definitely doesn’t suck, the words still felt right for one night.
Before Kaman had strapped on those Nike high-tops with “SASQUATCH” on the tongue, he'd been in the locker room, lamenting not having weighing D’Antoni’s small-ball style before signing with the Lakers and calling this his most frustrating of 11 seasons in the NBA: “By far. Tenfold.”
Yet the night ended with D’Antoni and Kaman winners...together.
You might have thought it was only to determine the June draft order, but this is why they play the games. The unexpected is always just a bounce away.
And if rebuilding is a bit further away than that, the Lakers need nights like this to pass the time and keep the faith.