Lakers playing to avoid the NBA’s play-in tournament

LOS ANGELES – LeBron James last played a game on May 2 against the Toronto Raptors. STAPLES Center fans expecting or at least hoping that James would be inclined to make a cameo appearance in the team’s last home game of the regular season didn’t get that wish. Sure, James did make a spot-up appearance but it wasn’t what many thought it would be. 

James was on the floor but didn’t suit up to play. That’s old news. James is prepping to be ready for the postseason. That’s when the team is really going to need him. The Los Angeles Lakers have played up and down basketball since James suffered a high ankle sprain back in March. And at the No. 7 seed right now, the Lakers are serious candidates to be part of the NBA’s play-in tournament. 

This is a scenario the Lakers want to avoid. The play-in tournament (teams seeded 7-10) is pretty much rolling the dice with a best-of-three format. If the Lakers overhaul the Portland Trail Blazers or Dallas Mavericks to be the sixth seed they can avoid running into trouble and be guaranteed a first round spot.

And then more than likely their opponent in the first round would be the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s a good thing the Lakers have managed to pull a rabbit out of a rabbit’s hat to come away with a three-game winning streak, including beating the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets in back-to-back games at home.

If the Lakers don’t pull a 101-99 overtime win against the Knicks and nudge the Rockets by the score of 124-122, they would be likely out of the running for that No. 6 slot with two games remaining on their schedule. 

Against the Knicks, the Lakers needed game-winning heroics in the form of Talen Horton-Tucker, who dropped a dagger 3-pointer in the extra period to win that ballgame. Against the Rockets, the Lakers got a key play at the end of the game to secure their third straight win. But the way the Lakers have played in those two games is also reflective of how the team has played down the stretch, which should be a bit concerning if you bleed Purple and Gold.     

Over their last 10 games, before they finish off the regular season with two games on the road against the Indian Pacers and New Orleans Pelicans, the Lakers have played helter-skelter basketball, winning five games and losing the other five. Even though they are on a current three-game winning streak, Laker basketball during this stretch has been both has been sloppy and uneven. 

Not having James available to play for the bulk of that time can be blamed for that. After all, James is the team’s main ball facilitator and leader at the same time. But thinking that this is the same Lakers team that won a title a year ago would be disingenuous at best. Injuries and bad play in stretches were not even part of the conversation for the Lakers last season.

In reality, the Lakers were fortunate not to be scathed by the injury bug last season. This season, James, as well as forward Anthony Davis, have both been hit with a variety of maladies. While a healthy James and Davis are capable of leading the Lakers to a repeat title, the challenges stacked up against them will be much stiffer than a year ago when the team breezed through the postseason.

Last season, the Lakers went hunting for the championship after a flameout in 2019 in which the team did not make the playoffs. This year, the Lakers are the hunted, so they are going to get a team’s best effort every night. Playing against the Pacers and Pelicans might be a great opportunity for James to get in some game reps before the NBA playoffs begin.

In the team’s season finale, James sat on the bench in street clothes as he watched the Lakers pull off the second of two stirring victories. Granted, the Houston Rockets, a team sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference, was not going to do too much resisting. 

The Rockets flipped that scorecard and pushed the Lakers unto the waning seconds in the second of a back-to-back. Just a day before beating the Rockets by a 124-122 margin, the Lakers reached deep in the well to record a 101-99 overtime win against the New York Knicks, thanks to a game-winning 3-pointer by Talen Horton-Tucker. 

After giving up 43 points in the third quarter to Houston, the Lakers had to rely on a steal by Wes Matthews to seal the game’s victory. It was only fitting the Lakers would win their final home game of the season since team owner Jeannie Buss, James and Davis gave fans the honor of seeing their 2020 NBA championship banner unveiled in the rafters. 

Without a parade to follow up their title run, the Lakers were left with just a banner unveiling, a ceremony which basically lasted only a couple of minutes before tip-off. If the Lakers want to unveil another championship banner in the fall it’s best they start playing like it.  

Featured Image: Los Angeles Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker, left, grabs a rebound away from Houston Rockets forward Anthony Lamb during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)