The sound you might have heard coming out of Staples Center the other night wasn't Jack Nicholson muttering to himself about better times while tearing the stuffing out of his courtside seat.
Nicholson is not about to badmouth his beloved Los Angeles Lakers and, besides, he's going to need that seat for at least a few more games.
The Lakers made sure of that when they beat a depleted Seattle team at home, setting off a collective sigh of relief among the faithful that their team somehow managed to stumble once again into the NBA playoffs.
That makes 43 times in 47 seasons since moving to Los Angeles that the Lakers have made the playoffs, a remarkable record even in a league where you don't always have to have a winning team to play in the postseason.
Just as remarkable is that nine of those teams went on to win NBA championships.
The Lakers dynasty of nearly a half century rivals some of the best in sports, and Kobe Bryant added to the lore when he teamed up with Shaquille O'Neal to win three straight titles before sending Shaq off to Miami in a huff.
The playoffs are about to start again, so Laker fans should be excited. And they are, because there are questions they want to see answered.
Will Kobe score at least 50 points in every game?
If he does, will the Zen Master approve?
And are those rumors about Luke Walton dating Britney Spears really true?
All good questions, even if Walton has already answered the last one (he says no). Unfortunately for the Lakers, none of them have anything to do with the team's chances of going anywhere beyond the first round for a second straight year.
Then again, there isn't much need for those kind of questions. Even the best player in the NBA can't do enough to help this disjointed team beat the powerhouses of the West.
Bryant will win the scoring title, and he does have 10 games of 50 or more points, a total only topped by the great Wilt Chamberlain. But he's no Michael Jordan when it comes to leading a team on his own, and this team is in serious need of being led.
Before beating the Supersonics to clinch a playoff berth, the Lakers nearly played their way out of the postseason by losing eight of their last 10 games. They did it the way they've done it most of the season, blowing leads and being forced to rely solely on Bryant to hit the big shots in the fourth quarter.
Little wonder that Phil Jackson wasn't exactly celebrating his 16th playoff team in 16 seasons as a head coach.
``If you're going to play and give away games at the end, it doesn't matter if you go in the playoffs,'' Jackson said. ``You're just fodder. You're just going to be fodder for these teams that you play against.''
Hard to think of the Lakers as just fodder, but this team has some serious issues.
They begin at center where Kwame Brown showed early signs of brilliance this season but has been injured and inconsistent ever since. They end with the supporting cast where, aside from Lamar Odom, there's no one to take the scoring pressure off of Bryant.
That's led to some huge scoring nights by Bryant, who has never met a shot he didn't like. But teams can now focus just on the superstar, secure in the knowledge that no one else is going to beat them.
These Lakers have become a one-man team going nowhere fast.
``For us to win games as of late, I've got to be on,'' Bryant said. ``If that shot's not on, we really struggle to win games.''
Showtime, this isn't. And this is a team that was supposed to get better, not worse, with a more mature Bryant and with Jackson in his second year back on the bench.
The Lakers look like they'll get the seventh seed in the West, which means they will meet the Phoenix Suns in the first round. It's possible they could slip to eighth, where an even worse fate lies in the Dallas Mavericks.
Not that it matters. They can't beat either team in a series, and will be hard pressed just to win a game.
Laker fans may dispute that, but the odds are stacked against them. Literally.
In Las Vegas, the Mavericks are 9-5 favorites to win it all, with the Suns just behind, tied at 2-1 with San Antonio. The Lakers are 40-1 longshots, meaning you would be better throwing your money away on a claimer to win the Kentucky Derby than this team to win the NBA title.
About the only sure bet for a Laker fan is that Bryant will be there shooting, and Nicholson will be there watching.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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