This team wasn’t supposed to be in the Tank Wars. It was a roster that was short on defensive talent, but could more than make up for it offensively. When the season started, we watched a motivated unit hand it to a Clippers squad that was deemed title contenders. We watched them battle night in and night out, pulling out a memorable win Houston. Although they hovered around .500, they were putting up gritty, gutty performances and made fans proud.
As we know, the injury bug ravaged the team. Heading into tonight’s game, no player had appeared in every game this season, with Jodie Meeks and Jordan Hill the last victims. It felt like a revolving door, where one player came back healthy and another left injured. We watched the trio of Steve Nash, Steve Blake, and Jordan Farmar return Tuesday night only to have Meeks and Hill leave the same game.
Which meant heading into Wednesday’s contest in Cleveland, the Lakers had just eight healthy players, which isn’t the first time it happened this year. Yet, this bunch which has fought so hard this year, never gave up. After one quarter, they led 36-17. They continued into the second quarter, pushing the lead to 21 points behind a 70-point first half.
When Nick Young didn’t return for the second half, the remaining players remained unaltered, it was situation they were used to at this point in the season. Young came to LA on a minimum salary simply to come home, and Los Angeles has embraced him. His heart and passion for this game are undeniable and contagious. So even without him, the Lakers pushed on like so many times this year. Their lead ballooned to 96-68 with three minutes remaining in the 3rd quarter.
But the struggles kept coming. In large part to a deeper bench, the Cavaliers went on a spirited run between the 3rd and 4th quarters, pulling within 10 points on a 22-4 run. When Jordan Farmar pulled up lame after missing a fast break lay-up, things looked bleak, but not impossible. Chris Kaman subbed in for Farmar, but quickly worsened the Lakers situation, fouling out just over a minute after entering the game.
Kaman made way for Robert Sacre, the once Mr. Irrelevant but now never more important big man. The man who epitomizes the spirit of this Lakers unit as a tough worker who may not have all the physical attributes, but has the drive necessary to compete in the league.
Farmar returned to give it a go, but couldn’t continue, leaving way for Kendall Marshall. Another Laker who has revitalized his career in the purple and gold, Marshall was a D-Leaguer before the Lakers brought him on-board only out of necessity. All he did heading into tonight’s contest was average 11.4 points and 11 assists a night while shooting 44.9% from behind the arc.
As Sacre picked up his sixth foul with 3:32 left in the game and the team clinging to an 8-point lead, it seemed they finally had been dealt a challenge they wouldn’t be able to overcome. But an obscure, seldom-used rule allowed Sacre to stay in the game, with any common foul by Sacre resulting in both a personal foul and a technical foul.
All this opened the door for one final hero: Steve Blake. A silent warrior, Blake does all the small things you want out of a point guard: directing traffic, offering pin-point passes, and leading the team. He’s soft-spoken, rarely complains, and knows how to get the most out of his skill set. He’s battled some of the most bizarre injuries in his time with the Lakers, ranging from chicken pox to stepping on road spikes and, most recently, rupturing his ear drum mid-game on Tuesday night. His elbow injury that’s usually reserved for baseball players kept him out for an extended period. Even upon his return, his shot never looked fluid – or as fluid as a Steve Blake jumper could look – and he didn’t appear to fully trust his elbow yet.
Yet on Wednesday night, it was Blake who delivered the final daggers. With just over three minutes remaining, he buried his first shot of the night, a three-pointer, to put the Lakers up 11. With Cleveland putting together one last run, having cut the lead to six and just 57 seconds remaining, Blake ended the wacky night with his only other field goal of the night, another three, putting the Lakers back up nine and out of harm’s way.
It was almost an after thought that Blake ended up with a triple-double on the night with his rebound with 13 seconds remaining giving him his 10th. His two threes late in the game gave him 11 points, and he handed out 15 assists on the night. Few would have expected rookie Ryan Kelly, who has embraced his role as the stretch four Mike D’Antoni covets so much, to lead the team in scoring with 26 points. Few would have anticipated Farmar, in his first game back since late December, to finish with 21 points. Wes Johnson, another revitalization project, fell just short of a double-double with 20 points and 9 rebounds.
It was no doubt one of the wackiest, wildest, and weirdest NBA games many fans will ever watch. And really, in a long list of bad luck for the Lakers, this game seemed to fit in perfectly with a season mostly viewed as a disappointment. But that hasn’t stopped the Lakers from battling night in and night out. Look no further than Wednesday night’s opponent. Entering the game, the two sides had identical records. While the Lakers faithful have written the season off as a loss, the Cavalier faithful remain hopeful for the playoffs. They are actively trying to win.
Yet you couldn’t have had two different teams. The Lakers came out sharp, energetic, focused, and it showed as they hit their first six three-point attempts. They shot a blistering 71% from the field after one quarter. Night in and night out, they fight. They’re not always as talented, often undermanned, but rarely out-worked. This squad will be more remembered for what they’ve failed at doing than what they’ve accomplished, and for the most part, rightfully so. But it’s a unit who have made their fanbase proud, and considering the circumstances, that’s all you can ask for.