Things are looking up for the Los Angeles Lakers. They’re 11-6 since the All-Star break and briefly reached .500. They’re ninth in Net Rating since the trade deadline. LeBron James is back from injury, and D’Angelo Russell could rejoin the team on Wednesday. Their remaining schedule is relatively favorable.
And yet, the 37-38 Lakers — coming off a deflating loss to the Chicago Bulls — are one cold stretch away from falling back to the No. 10 seed or out of playoff positioning altogether. (They’re fortunate the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz are throwing in the towel, while the Dallas Mavericks are reeling.)
LeBron and Darvin Ham believe that the Lakers can avoid the Play-In and grab the No. 6 seed or higher. That’s the dream. And even though they should be relieved to still be alive after 82 games after a 2-10 start, here would be the most nightmarish scenarios for the Lakers, should they make the dance.
If the Lakers can’t escape the Play-In, the No. 10 seed is, obviously, the most arduous place to end up, as it requires back-to-back road wins. Entering Tuesday, the Lakers are tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the No. 10 spot, though Los Angeles owns the tiebreaker.
The worst-case scenario for the Lakers would be finishing tenth and facing OKC first. The Thunder boast a 22-15 home record, and the atmosphere at the Paycom Center would go to 11 for its first postseason game since 2019 — especially if the opponent was LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers.
Furthermore, OKC has played the Lakers tough for the past two seasons. In the fall of 2021, they mounted two 20+ point comebacks to sink the Lakers in the span of five days. This season — riding their stud backcourt of hai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, who have consistently given the Lakers fits — the upstart Thunder coolly handled the Lakers on the night LeBron broke the scoring record and have hung tight in two meetings since.
Overall, the most challenging Play-In route would see the Lakers dealing with OKC on the road, then visiting the Golden State Warriors for a win-and-in showdown.
“To hell with the play-in,” LeBron said when explaining his motivation to put off surgery and rejoin his teammates. “We actually can be a top-six seed.”
Avoiding the Play-In would represent a resounding success for the Lakers. At that point, beggars can’t be choosers in terms of their opponents. Nevertheless, in this scenario, the path of most resistance would be drawing the No. 6 seed and watching the Phoenix Suns — with Kevin Durant back in the mix — eclipse the Sacramento Kings for the No. 3 seed.
The Lakers have struggled mightily with the Suns since, well, this infamous moment in Game 3 of the 2021 first round. The Lakers are 1-9 against their Pacific Division rival since then, with the lone victory coming … last week, albeit in impressive fashion.
The Suns will be deeply motivated and confident against Los Angeles, and did I mention they’ll have the Slim Reaper? Phoenix won their three games with KD by an average of 13 points, and may very well be the favorite to win the West if he’s healthy. The Lakers don’t want any of that smoke.
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