Blake a reminder of a season gone awry

April, 12, 2014
Apr 12
12:07
AM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- For much of the second half of this season, Kobe Bryant's presence at Staples Center during Lakers game has sort of been like the fabled leprechauns at old Boston Garden.

You knew Bryant -- like the little green-clad lads -- was supposedly in the building, but you rarely got a glimpse of him because he couldn't bring himself to watch the games from the bench.

[+] EnlargePau Gasol and Steve Blake
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsSteve Blake was warmly received at Staples Center on Friday, especially by former teammate Pau Gasol, who shared a hug with Blake.
Well, Bryant will come out of seclusion Sunday to address the crowd before the Lakers' final home game of the season.

It's an annual tradition by the Lakers to hand the microphone to a player before tipoff at the regular-season finale at Staples. It's not only a way to thank the fans for their support all season, but also to drum up enthusiasm for the Lakers' ensuing postseason run.

With no playoffs in the picture this season for the Lakers, who fell to 25-54 with a 112-95 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Friday, the context of Bryant's speech will be more like a eulogy for the worst campaign in team history.

But count on Bryant, who described himself as the "eternal optimist" a couple of years ago when the Lakers trailed the Dallas Mavericks 0-3 in a playoff series and he genuinely believed L.A. could come back to win, to offer up some kind of rallying cry for Lakers fans to latch on to rather than to dwell on the doldrums.

(Whether his optimism sometimes borders on delusion is another story for another day. The Lakers lost Game 4 of that Dallas series by 36 points to be swept out of the second round, of course.)

Besides, the timing for a eulogy at this point of the season with three games left would be all wrong. The truth is the Lakers' season flatlined long ago.

Just how long? There's a solid argument to be made that March 14 was the day the purple-and-gold dream died, when the Lakers became the first team in the league to be officially eliminated from postseason contention and there were still 16 games left to be played.

In actuality, the plug was pulled on the season about a month before that, one day before the NBA trade deadline. Steve Blake, probably the Lakers' most consistent two-way player to that point, was warming up on the court before they were about to play the Houston Rockets when he was called into the coaches' locker room about an hour before tipoff. And the message he received? Change back into street clothes and go home, Steve, because you were just traded to the Golden State Warriors.

The Lakers were 18-35 at the time, so it wasn't as if they had much life left in them at that point anyway, but that deal and what it represented -- cost-cutting and swapping proven production for untapped potential -- was the final blow.

Having Blake back in L.A. on Friday making an impact for the playoff-bound Warriors with 13 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals, was like having the Grim Reaper pay a visit to a tombstone months after the funeral.

"When he left, it kind of all caved in," Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said when asked about Blake on Thursday.

And seemingly, the Lakers have been left rearranging the rubble ever since, going 7-18 in the 25 games since Blake was sent packing.

Even the supposed silver lining from the trade -- a couple of young players in Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks -- has become tarnished. Bazemore tore a tendon in his foot last weekend. Brooks collected a DNP-CD on Friday, as he has fallen so out of favor with D'Antoni that he couldn't even get in the game when L.A. had only nine healthy players for the night and trailed by 20 points for much of the second half.

In theory, freeing up Blake's 33 minutes per game was also going to allow the Lakers to dole out that playing time to different guys as they used the final portion of the season for player evaluation.

That hasn't gone as well as planned either, as an array of injuries continued to plague the roster and their lineups have looked more like grasping at straws than carefully arranged combinations.

"Because of the injuries and because of the inconsistent play, you end up doing that," D'Antoni admitted before the Warriors game. "It's not good for the players. They usually perform better when they have a role that they can settle into, but you can only have a role to settle into if it's a winning role and you win the spot or you show that's what you do.

"We've been hunting and pecking and it doesn't always work."

Certainly not. The Lakers have been broken for a while, with Blake being one of the parts they've been missing that gave them any hope of functionality.

Bryant will try to breathe some new life into the team with his words on Sunday. But it will take a lot more actions than words for the Lakers to rise again.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Kobe Bryant
PTS AST STL MIN
24.6 4.9 1.4 35.4
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 8.3
AssistsK. Bryant 4.9
StealsR. Price 1.4
BlocksE. Davis 1.2