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BILL PLASCHKE

Lakers begin playoffs with a '1996' vibe, and that could be bad

Seventeen years ago, a dysfunctional Lakers team lost in first round. Then they got Shaq and Kobe, building a championship foundation. Now they're at crossroads again.

April 20, 2013|Bill Plaschke
  • Lakers big men Dwight Howard, left, and Pau Gasol talk strategy during a break in play against the Rockets on Wednesday night.
Lakers big men Dwight Howard, left, and Pau Gasol talk strategy during a… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)

The last time they tried this, it didn't go so well.

The last time the Lakers attempted to win a playoff series without Kobe Bryant, they had home-court advantage, a future Hall of Famer, and absolutely no chance.

The year was 1996, and after lurching through the regular season into a first-round, best-of-five series against the Houston Rockets, the unsteady Lakers collapsed into a dysfunctional heap.

After they played one of their worst games of the season in losing the series opener at the Forum, Magic Johnson, in his brief foray between retirements, challenged coach Del Harris.

"In the first half, he didn't want me to post at all . . . in the second half he said, 'OK, now post,'" Johnson said in a postgame interview. "Now . . . wait a minute!"

After they tied the series in Game 2, they watched the Rockets go on a 13-0 fourth-quarter run that beat them in Game 3. Afterward, when asked how to stop Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon, the Lakers had but one answer.

"Poison the Dream's food," Cedric Ceballos said.

That he was still one of the team's spokesmen spoke volumes about the team. A month earlier, Ceballos had walked off the court and disappeared for five days, during which time he was spotted at the London Bridge Resort in Lake Havasu.

"Ceballos Up Creek Without a Paddle," read the L.A. Times headline.

Before Game 4, the locker room reeked with so much selfishness, Johnson questioned the players' heart.

"Are you really for the team, or is that just something that comes out of your mouth?" he said.

Harris was so embattled by second-guessing, he questioned their agendas.

"We've got a lot of coaches on this team, don't we?" he said.

After they were mercifully eliminated in Game 4, for once the legendary Nick Van Exel didn't question anything. He walked to the team bus, pulled out his luggage, told the Lakers he would find his own ride back to Los Angeles, and handed his monetary playoff share to rookie Frankie King.

"A fractured team?" wrote the Times' Scott Howard-Cooper.

Fast-forward 17 years, to Sunday, when the Lakers once again will attempt to tackle the season's biggest moments without a big-moment guy.

They are not fractured. But they quickly could be. They are not up a creek without a paddle. But the ride could be short and bumpy.

That 1996 debacle was compelling not only in its causes, but its effects. This was the playoff series that spurred the changes that led directly to the beginning of a new Lakers championship era. That summer, Johnson retired for the final time, Bryant was acquired, Shaquille O'Neal was signed and the rest, as they say, is histrionics.

Depending on the outcome of this postseason, which begins Sunday afternoon in San Antonio against the heavily favored Spurs, the same sort of changes could happen again. Perhaps never has there been a Lakers spring featuring so many questions, with answers steeped in so many ramifications.

"It's been a real roller-coaster ride," Steve Blake said. "We're looking forward to seeing what happens with the rest of it."

It starts in the middle. This is Dwight Howard's chance to cement himself as the team leader and guarantee his status as the Lakers' future when he signs a new contract this summer.

But what if none of that happens? What if Howard's defensive intensity in the last two home games wilts under playoff pressure? What if the strain of leading a team into a nasty playoff environment without a strong coach and with a mismatched supporting cast becomes too much?

As of today, there seems to be no question that Howard will return as a Laker, but what if a four-game blowout suddenly makes him wonder whether the rebuilding here is worth it?

Then there is the coach. This is Mike D'Antoni's chance to validate the strangely strong support offered by General Manager Mitch Kupchak. This is when a coach known for postseason failures can change that perception.

But what if none of that happens? What if his loose control becomes postseason chaos and, somewhere during the middle of this series, the Lakers decide they just don't want to play for him anymore? It happened to Mike Brown in Oklahoma City last year, it could happen here, and then what does Kupchak do?

Here's guessing Kupchak's recent public vote of confidence will last only as long as Howard agrees with it or the playoff results support it. In other words, the polling is not yet complete.

Then there is the final, far different, yet far more important question: What if everything happens?

What if the Lakers' defensive intensity and offensive freedom carry them past San Antonio, past an easier second-round opponent, and on to the conference finals or even beyond? As crazy as it sounds, what if they show management that this can be a championship team without Bryant?

The word "amnesty" has already been used in the same sentence as "Kobe," even by Kobe himself on his Twitter feed. If the Lakers can move forward with Howard and Pau Gasol, would the same ownership that once traded Shaq decide it could live without the final year of Kobe?

It will never happen. It should never happen. Even if these Lakers improbably win as many as two playoff series, or even more, there is no way they are giving up on a player who has won five championships and should retire a Laker. But the question might be raised, and if it is, Kupchak may need a brief escape.

Lake Havasu comes to mind.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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