Lakers center Dwight Howard throws down a dunk against the Houston Rockets. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
The Lakers have redefined unpredictability this season, touching too many lows to count despite an egregiously large $100-million payroll.
But a basketball break bounced in their direction Monday, the Houston Rockets somehow losing to Phoenix, meaning the Lakers would finish seventh in the Western Conference if they beat the Rockets on Wednesday at Staples Center.
The Lakers (44-37) trail Houston by a game but can even up the head-to-head tiebreaker at 2-2 with a victory Wednesday and simultaneously win the next tiebreaker because of a better conference mark.
If the Lakers finish seventh, their first-round opponent would be San Antonio, the team they just beat Sunday, 91-86. If they finish eighth, they open the playoffs at top-seeded Oklahoma City, where they've lost six in a row, including an 0-3 mark in last season's playoffs.
In other words . . . the Lakers want to win Wednesday. Badly.
But they can't get too thrilled with Monday's developments. If they lose to Houston, they might fall to ninth and out of the playoffs for only the third time since 1976.
Utah (43-38) crushed Minnesota on Monday to move within one game of the Lakers. The Jazz has already clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Lakers, winning two of three games against them this season. It ends the regular season Wednesday at Memphis.
Based on everything that's happened since October, it only makes sense that the Lakers' playoff hopes come down to the final day of the regular season.
That's the new-look Lakers, of course. The version without injured Kobe Bryant, out for the season after suffering a torn Achilles' tendon Friday night against Golden State.
Without Phil Jackson roaming NBA locker rooms, San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich is the league's most critical coach, unafraid to zing his own players, garishly dressed sideline reporters and, sure, himself.
So it wasn't surprising to hear him give a vote of confidence to the Lakers minus Bryant. Or maybe that was a back-handed compliment.
"We didn't match their energy at all," he said after the Lakers beat the Spurs. "Timmy [Duncan] is a pro. . . . He's really the only guy on [our] team that played like somebody who wanted to win a championship. Again, a lot of that was because of the Lakers' energy. It started out with [Steve] Blake and it just permeated their whole group. I thought they were wonderful in that sense."
It's hard to say any team that shot 36.5% was wonderful. But the Lakers won a big one in their first game without Bryant.
If they make the playoffs, it won't be easy against Oklahoma City or San Antonio. The Lakers somehow need to match the defensive abandon they showed Sunday.
Tony Parker was one for 10, Kawhi Leonard was one for five and center Tiago Splitter was five for 13 for San Antonio.
"I think they did a fine job under the circumstances," Popovich said. "They pulled together, they played together, they were unselfish, committed and physical defensively, and they did a fine job."
Blake (23 points) outplayed Parker (four points), a phrase that would need to be written 10 times before sinking in. Parker played only three minutes in the fourth quarter, and not because he recently returned from neck and ankle injuries.
"No, he's totally healthy," Popovich said. "It wasn't because he was resting. He was playing awful."
The Lakers have no choice but to move on without Bryant, sidelined until at least October. He posted a photo Monday on Twitter of Dwight Howard and Jodie Meeks visiting him at his home.
Howard was big against the Spurs — 26 points and 17 rebounds — and Meeks hit two three-pointers midway through the fourth quarter to create scoreboard separation.
The Lakers will need something from everybody to make the playoffs, much less do anything productive in the first round.
"One of our biggest problems earlier [this season] was that everybody wanted to lead, everybody wanted to be an alpha dog and everybody wanted the ball," Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We had to get through that and we got through it pretty well. It took a while, obviously, but they're ready to go. They're thinking, 'Oh, OK, I'm back in the driver's seat,' and they look forward to that."