The Los Angeles Lakers appear to be cashing in on a promise Kobe Bryant made to bring the team to the playoffs.
Despite a rough start to the season in which the team struggled to find rhythm with its high-priced offseason acquisitions — Dwight Howard and Steve Nash — the Lakers have turned it around of late and surged into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
On the strength of a 90-81 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, the Lakers slipped a half game past the sinking Utah Jazz to reach No. 8.
The team has won 8 of its last 10 games and 16 of its last 22 to pull two games over .500.
What’s more, the team seems to have found a rhythm under head coach Mike D’Antoni, who took over early this season after the Lakers fired Mike Brown.
Even the mercurial Dwight Howard seems to be coming around. The All-Star center came in conflict with coaches, clashed on the court with guard Steve Nash and was called out by Kobe Bryant when recovering from an injury, but now seems to be in harmony with the other Lakers.
It all changed on All-Star weekend, Howard said.
“I’m a big thinker,” Dwight Howard said during an interview after the Los Angeles Lakers practiced Saturday afternoon. “So I just stayed in the hotel and thought about the first half of the season and how I could do better for our team.
“And I just told myself, ‘I’m going to commit myself to being better for the second half of the season.’ ”
Howard admitted that playing with Kobe Bryant has helped him,
“It’s going to make me a better man and a better player from watching Kobe,” Howard said.
Playing in Los Angeles, for a franchise with expectations as high as the Lakers, is “a lot different,” Howard said.
“Besides just the expectations,” he said. “In games, I mess up and there’s somebody in the crowd saying something and I’m ready to snap at ’em. That’s not what we’re supposed to do.
“But you look at a guy like Kobe and he doesn’t care about nothing but going out there and playing hard. That’s a lesson a lot of us have to learn — especially young guys.”
Though the Lakers would enter into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed if the season ended today, the team still has a chance to climb farther up the standings. The team now sits only 2 games out of the No. 6 spot, and if the Lakers keep winning could end up with an interesting first-round matchup with either the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs.