by Ben Collins

This was a grade-A circus, replete with a standup act at halftime, basically a full-bore rally or protest or insurgency for a new coach, some sixth-grade quality will-they-won’t-they-drama, and, as a closer, a man performing an act (free throws) he typically cannot.

But, at the end of it, the Lakers won by 20 and they’re likely in the NBA Playoffs again, against all odds—and, at points, against what looked liked a concerted effort to miss them out of long-held grudges or to prove a point.

What point? Who the hell knows! The Lakers are makin’ the playoffs! Yeehaw!

Lakers 101, Mavericks 81.

Don’t get the impression that this win constituted a sea change or a Eureka moment or even a return to caring. Kobe’s brilliance was dominant and frighteningly usual, but once again in flux. He had a triple double because they needed it, as always.

You can spin this two ways: Adaptability or lack of identity. They’re 39-36, so figure it out yourself. The league’s best shooting guard needed to play point guard again, and he found this out in full sometime around halftime.

Oh, then there was halftime. We should probably talk about halftime.

They retired Shaq’s jersey. This was like your hottest, pseudo-friendly ex getting married the day of a job interview. It had the makings of something real devastating.

Pregame was a certifiable zoo. Phil Jackson was there, avoiding the locker room. So was Shaq, the largest man on Earth, standing five feet outside of it but never entering.

Shaq was charming as hell. The ceremony went on forever and no one noticed. He didn’t mention Kobe. The “We Want Phil” chant was so loud Mike “Not Phil” D’Antoni would’ve heard it if he drove straight to Temecula for the entirety of the 25-minute thing. Kobe pre-shot a video congratulating O’Neal on “being immortalized” in purple and gold, but otherwise didn’t show up.

I mean, would Kobe want Shaq to do the same thing?

“Not if we’re in the middle of a playoff chase,” he says. “Ugh, now you guys are gonna start some s–t.”

Yeah! Fan the flames, Kobe! Fan ‘em! F–k it! You’re goin’ to the playoffs!

Oh, and here’s Dwight, too! He closed out the game going 7-of-10 during the Hack-a-Dwight festivities. This is good, but it’s sort of like cashing your paycheck at a casino ATM every month.

Give me some of that beautiful, circusy distraction stuff, big guy.

“I don’t compare myself to Shaq,” he says. “I’m Dwight Howard.”

Yeah! You too! Give me more circus! We’re goin’ to the playoffs! Yeehaw!

Mike D’Antoni, whose job is to put out those fires or play lion tamer to this whole charade, had to pull one out in front of the only guy in the world who not only de-circused this circus for years, but also won five rings in the middle of it and made it look easy or sexy.

D’Antoni did it admirably tonight, even though he pretended like he didn’t hear any of the calls for his head from the locker room. They were chanting “We Want Phil,” remember.

“He’s only won 58 rings,” he says. “Why wouldn’t they?”

It’s funny. If it sounds like he understands that he would be collateral damage in the Lakers’ path to be what they used to be, it’s because that’s exactly it. He has effectively moved on from that reality, even though he’s reminded of it almost every night.

And maybe that’s their identity. Not adaptability or being good at basketball. Maybe it’s that these Lakers are 100 percent impervious to bullshit at this point. They have to be to win a game in a zoo.

And maybe, too, that’s enough to win a playoff series, even though they really shouldn’t. Yeehaw?

Screw it. Yeehaw!

PREGAME:

- Dirk has done nothing but shoot jumpers while everyone else is busy pretending there wasn’t a giant, pregnant elephant in the room down the hallway.

- Jesus, he’s shooting jumpers during the Mavs’ introductions. He doesn’t do this all the time. I’m not even sure you’re allowed to do this all the time.

FIRST QUARTER:

- No Nash or Metta for LA. Everybody else is healthy. Well, healthy enough.

- Chris Kaman, who hasn’t played extensive minutes since Prohibition, has two hustle floaters, but it doesn’t matter because the Mavericks’ defense is still in the locker room trying to figure out if Roofies are as bad as they’re made out to be. 7-6, Lakers after a Steve Blake 3.

- This Mike James on Kobe on purpose thing is not working. Blow-by and a dunk on a standard iso.

- Then they lose Dwight, who has 6 by just hanging around the low block. People wonder why Chris Kaman doesn’t play. I don’t. 13-10, Lakers. Timeout Dallas because, Jesus, seriously?

- If the Lakers win this game it’s not because they’ve turned a corner. It’s because the Mavericks think Mike James can cover Kobe Bryant.

- Collison’s in. Mayo on Kobe. Brand is in and he’s on Dwight.

- Kobe’s made two “Eff off, geometry” shots already. 17-13, LA.

- This is a lot of foul calls. Let’s put it that way.

- I like how a man still comes over in the press box to hand you an out-of=town score like it’s the 1920s. I’m gonna ask him for a box of cigarettes and a shoeshine when he comes back.

- Rick Carlisle takes his second timeout in 40 seconds because he just LOVES how his team is playing and really, really wants them to know about it.

- Just kidding. He just murdered Darren Collison with a chair and the Gatorade bucket. 24-18, LA.

- Pau is playing like a total weenie tonight. Let’s be real. He’s getting rebounds ripped out of his hands.

- Jae Crowder makes this a lot more doable on a banked-in three at the end of the quarter.

SECOND QUARTER:

- If this game is close, Dirk is going to take over and that’s going to be the end of it. I wish I could bet on this right now without having to see a guy named Two Necks Jerry behind the Hooters on Figueroa.

- Kobe temporarily diced around and messed up a fastbreak with a no-look pass. That led to a Vince Carter layup. So next possession, Kobe just pulls up and for a three and it goes in. He has 7 now. Lakers up 34-29.

- Kobe stops a fastbreak with a punchout to Earl Clark. He hits a two. Rick Carlisle is starting to look like a pissed off Yosemite Sam. Another timeout, which he may have -2 of at this point.

- This game certainly feels like two teams fighting for an 8-seed at this point. That is not a compliment.

- Kobe might have just won the eighth seed with that dunk. Elton Brand is a visitor in that poster.

- Then Kobe to Earl Clark. His second three of the game. The Mavs’ season is making that anvil-dropping-from-the-sky sound. 46-33.

- I don’t know why I insist on continuing this Yosemite Sam analogy.

- Kobe and Dwight took over. Dwight and-1 dunk. Pair of Kobe Js. Dirk and Kaman are trying to anchor them offensively, but they’re not enough alone. There’s one playoff team on the court right now. 55-39, Lakers.

- Yep, we’re going to continue pretending like Utah isn’t a place and that this non-place does not have stuff in it.

- 55-40, LA halftime.

HALFTIME SHAQTIME

- Shaq and his mom and her purse and his wife and her purse and his children are here.

- Kobe: “Congratulations on officially being immortalized.”

- The ovation for Phil Jackson is louder than Shaq. Much, much louder. The “We want Phil” chants are some of the loudest I’ve ever heard in this building.

- Phil Jackson seriously told back-to-back stories about times Shaq was naked on various courts throughout California. Not kidding.

- Shaq thanked Cliff Notes and Adam Sandler, called “Kazaam” a great movie, and saluted his dad. He ended his speech with two “Can You Dig Its?” He was perfect.

- No Kobe mention from Shaq. Didn’t even notice. You don’t ruin a wedding by bringing up a hot ex.

THIRD QUARTER

- Lot of movement, not much action until a a Shawn Marion post dunk cuts it to 11. Other than that one LA run to end the half, this game is weirdly devoid of flow. Can’t put a finger on it.

- More on that: Kobe has 17 but isn’t in a rhythm. Dwight is having an off-night and still has 15 and 10. These Lakers, as always, are like the McDonalds diet of NBA teams: This is going to look and feel fine a lot of the time, but you’re going to die early of diabetes.

- Very, very methodical 15-8 Dallas run to start this half. They’re within 8.

- Holy cow. Within 5. 63-58. OJ Mayo transition 3. We have a ballgame.

- This game is going to be won by Kobe or Dirk. Somehow, that says something about Dwight Howard.

- Or Earl Clark. Super athletic putback plus a foul. Missed free throw, then a three. 68-58, Lakers.

- Two more easy ones from Antawn Jamison, so Rick Carlisle takes his 42nd timeout.

- Two more for Jamison. That’s a 9-0 run in less than two minutes with no buckets from Kobe or Dwight.

- 72-61, Lakers. End of three.

FOURTH QUARTER:

- Down 11 and with the season on the line, the Mavericks are pressing everyone and trapping Kobe Bryant.

- They just called a carry on Kobe. I don’t know what world I live in anymore.

- Trap’s off. Kobe scores. Up 15 with 10 left.

- 5-0 run then Dirk flops into space on a Gasol drive to the basket and it’s 78-68 all of a sudden. Collison’s full court defense is setting the tone here.

- Other note: The Lakers have played seven players tonight. Kobe’s played every minute. That’s probably why this press has been so effective.

- BIgtime Dwight block on one end. Bigger time Pau dunk on the other. And Dirk is hurt. That might do it.

- Couple of things that felt like nails in coffins—a Blake three, then a big steal—were not necessarily that. That last steal turned into a fastbreak turnover and a Collison three. 83-75.

- Now that the lead is seven, Dirk’s back.

- Your primetime fives are:

Lakers: Blake, Kobe, Clark, Pau, Dwight. Mavericks: Collison, Mayo, Marion, Dirk, Wright.

- Dirk technical at a very bad time.

- Another tough Pau bucket. The lead’s ten with 3:45 to go. Rick Carlisle calls his commemorative 1000th timeout.

- Let the Hack-a-Dwight commence. He’s 3 of 10 before this all starts.

- He makes 7 of 10. And that should do it. People are leaving because they would rather be waiting in a parking garage than watching Dwight Howard shoot free throws well.

- Dirk misses two consecutive free throws. Goodnight, 2013 Mavericks. Goodnight cap room. Goodnight Dwight jumping over that cap room.

- Kobe hits a skyhook. A skyhook. Seriously. Fin. 101-81, Lakers.