The streamers fell from the rafters. Fans cheered giddily. And Lakers public announcer Lawrence Tanter revealed something that falls incredibly short of the organization’s championship standards.
“The Lakers are the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs,” Tanter said once the team’s season-finale win Wednesday over the Houston Rockets cemented a first-round matchup beginning Sunday against the San Antonio Spurs.
To think, many tabbed the Lakers championship contenders after spending last offseason acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to complement Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
Instead, the Lakers fired coach Mike Brown following a 1-4 start and hired Mike D”Antoni over the more popular Phil Jackson. Howard, Nash, Bryant and Gasol played only 22 games together because of various ailments. A veteran-laden roster initially struggled adapting to D’Antoni’s fast-paced system, and vice versa.
Yet, the Lakers enter the playoffs going 28-12 the day after having an air-it-out meeting in Memphis in January. The Lakers believe they can carry that despite Kobe Bryant’s absence (season-ending torn left Achilles tendon) and Steve Nash’s sore hamstring that’s kept him out for the past eight games.
“We’ve been through so much as a team this year with the injuries, rumors and everything that happened that made us separate from each other,” Lakers center Dwight Howard said. “But we stayed strong and stayed together.”
Few believe that means anything.
RJ Bell, of Pregame.com, tabs the Miami Heat as championship favorites (5-to-8 odds) ahead of Oklahoma City (5-to-1), San Antonio (12-to-1), New York (16-to-1), the Clippers (25-to-1) and the Lakers (75-to-1).
Bell also predicted the Lakers have only a 12% chance of beating the Spurs.
Still, San Antonio boasts an old roster with various injuries, including Manu Ginobili (hamstring) and Tony Parker (recent neck and ankle injuries). The Lakers beat the Spurs Sunday and lost within single digits two other times. An offense featuring more Howard and Pau Gasol could offset Tim Duncan.
Nonetheless, D’Antoni remembers how the Spurs, led by coach Gregg Popovich, beat his Suns teams three times in the playoffs earlier this decade.
“It’s not like I’ve gone to San Antonio and dominated anytime I remember,” said D’Antoni, who was named Westen Conference coach of the month. “They’ve been killing me for years.”
But the Lakers believe they can win an NBA title in the same way they avoided a missed playoff appearance for only the third time since 1976.
“It is a big accomplishment to make it to the playoffs with everything we’ve been through this season,” Howard said. “We can’t say, We made it into the playoffs, let’s pack it up and go home. We’re going to fight until we cant fight no more.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org