Lakers' Howard faces uncertain future after "rocky" year
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Dwight Howard walked off the floor after his ejection just as Kobe Bryant hobbled to his courtside seat as the All-Star team mates heading in opposite directions symbolized a lost season for the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers were mercilessly swept out of the playoffs on Sunday by the San Antonio Spurs 4-0, their first opening-round exit since 2007, with Sunday's 103-82 rout serving as the final blow of a tumultuous season.
Whether injuries, coaching, or a clash of high-profile personalities are to blame, the Lakers never did find the harmony to match their National Basketball Association championship expectations.
"Throughout the whole season, from top to bottom we couldn't get the type of chemistry we needed," Los Angeles forward Antawn Jamison told reporters. "We expected a lot of things to happen but they didn't. Things should have been different."
Fittingly, the Lakers' Howard stood at the center of the season's storm from start to finish. Los Angeles was all smiles when they acquired Howard from Orlando in a blockbuster off-season trade but the mood gradually dampened.
Howard never appeared to fully recover from last year's back surgery and suffered through an underwhelming campaign that included a shoulder ailment and perceived tension between he and team leader Bryant.
For Howard, playing his last game before unrestricted free agency, his lasting impression could not have been worse Sunday when he received a second technical foul early in the third quarter and exited with just seven points.
The contrasting image of Bryant emerging from the Lakers' locker room on crutches to a standing Staples Center ovation, and an able-bodied Howard leaving his team in need did little to help his image or the impression of his year as a whole.
"(It was) like a nightmare. Like a bad dream, and we just couldn't wake up out of it," said Howard, who defended his relationship with Bryant after the game and said he was not aware of their crossing paths in the third quarter.
"I think I handled some situations good, and I think I handled some bad. It's a growing process. Nothing went right from the start."
The Lakers started the season a disappointing 17-25 before using a 28-12 finish to eke into the postseason.
But the stretch run took a toll on the aging roster as Bryant, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks all went down with injuries and watched the team's final game in street clothes.
"It was kind of a year that was all upside down," said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, who was hired in place of the fired Mike Brown in November and never earned the approval of a Lakers fan base that booed him in the end.
"I hated that injuries started mounting. A lot of freaky stuff happened."
What will happen with the Lakers franchise moving forward is anyone's guess. Bryant, 34, will begin rehab on a major ankle injury; Howard, 27, will test free agency and is noncommittal about his plans, and the supporting cast has tenuous status.
"I would be pretty surprised if there were no changes whatsoever," said Pau Gasol, a frequent subject of trade rumors.
Gasol exchanged warm interaction with fans following the contest, which may well have been his last as a Laker.
Bryant, on the other hand, ended his day boarding a golf cart that took him from the bowels of the Staples Center to the parking lot, putting the season's long road well behind him.
"It was a rocky year," Howard said. "It's all over with now."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)