With about 22 games to go until the playoffs, the race for one of the final postseason spots in the West feels like it’s taking place inside a pressure cooker that’s getting more crowded by the day and hotter with every bad loss suffered by each of the teams in contention. After his Lakers beat the Rockets at home last Thursday, Luke Walton asked rhetorically: “If we go on this road trip and drop two straight, then what does this game really mean?” The question would turn out to be a premonition.
L.A. went on the road and did exactly what Walton described. They lost to the Anthony Davis–less Pelicans, and LeBron James responded by questioning the team’s commitment to basketball. On Monday night, they lost again, this time to 110-105 to the Grizzlies. It was LeBron who left a shooter wide open, it was he who air-balled a last-chance 3, and he who committed a charge in crunch time that sealed the Lakers’ loss to the second-worst team in the West.
Pressure, in the Lakers’ case, has only highlighted their flaws and inconsistencies. Even though LeBron’s lowlights are the ones that will be played on a loop until the Lakers’ next game, a glance at the box score will show an issue that runs deeper—all the way back to free agency last summer. Against Memphis, the Lakers bench combined for seven total points; four of the six bench players who saw the court had negative plus-minuses in the double digits, making the stat sheet look like one of my high school algebra tests. Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—the players the Lakers signed alongside LeBron—combined to shoot 5-for-16 from the field. The Lakers were outrebounded by 11, had 17 turnovers, allowed a 30-point night from Mike Conley Jr., and resuscitated Joakim Noah’s career by letting him get 14 points, 12 rebounds, and what felt like 10 dunks.
Ironically, this tumultuous set of games has brought out the best in Brandon Ingram. The third-year pro had one of the best games of his career Monday (32 points on 12-of-18 shooting, including three 3s), but it was wasted in the loss. Ingram’s evolution into the Lakers’ second-best player finally seems to be coming along—he came into Monday averaging 21.3 points on 55 percent shooting in the past month—right as everything else seems to be slowly falling apart. Even the silver linings have their shadow.
In the race for the 7-seed and the 8-seed in the West, the Lakers have long felt like the guarantee because, well, they employ LeBron. This past week has started to show some cracks in that typically foolproof foundation. And yet, even after losing to the Grizzlies and Pelicans, they are still only two games back in the loss column because the teams they are chasing (other than the Clippers) failed to win. No one seems to want these playoff spots, and after Monday, the already-complicated race added another team to its mix.
In Brooklyn, the Spurs were bulldozed by the lovable crew of young players that make up this year’s Nets. Through three quarters, San Antonio scored only 59 points. It was a scoring drought that felt emblematic of their recent struggles. They have lost seven of their past eight games and have fielded the league’s worst defense and a bottom-10 offense during that stretch. For most of the season, the Spurs have been buoyed by their system and the reliability of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, but they might be running out of gas and hitting their ceiling at the worst possible time. With the loss, they fell to eighth in the West; at the beginning of February, they were the fifth seed.
In Minnesota, the Kings had a chance to get into a tie with the Spurs for the last spot. They were up by as many as 13 points in the first quarter, then lost a lead they would never recoup. Karl-Anthony Towns unleashed one of his best games of the season (34 points, 21 rebounds, five assists, two blocks), and even still, the Kings had a chance to win it late thanks to Minny’s inability to close. But for some reason, it was Corey Brewer who was driving to the hoop as a crunch-time option. [Insert thinking-face emoji here.] Sacramento, of course, is trying to get back into the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. The Wolves, who made it back last year for the first time in 14 seasons, know that feeling, and by beating the Kings on Monday, Minnesota is back in the playoff picture—tied with the Lakers, just three games back from that elusive 8-seed.
Above them all are the Clippers, who have not gone away. Instead, they’ve risen to the 7-seed with a full game lead over the Spurs after beating the Mavericks 121-112 on Monday. The juxtaposition between them and the Lakers is telling. The Clippers traded away Tobias Harris, their best player, at the deadline and haven’t suffered too much for it. It’s been irrevocable proof that it’s their system, not their top talent, that has kept them in the mix. They’re playing with house money and have no pressure, but are still thriving. The Lakers, however, are having to rely almost entirely on their best player to save them. They’re dealing not just with pressure, but the biggest spotlight in the league too.
”There definitely is some added pressure for the group,” Walton said after the Lakers’ loss to Memphis on Monday, citing a lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and “talks off the court.”
In Lakerland, the season has felt like it’s spanned ages—and really, from the honeymoon stage to the LeBron injury and the Anthony Davis saga, it has. Outside pressure hasn’t helped, but if things aren’t built to win on the inside—and for the Lakers, it doesn’t feel like they are—then does that really matter? It’s survival time now.