Saturday night seemed to perfectly encapsulate where the race for the final playoff spot (or spots) in the West stands. In Oklahoma City, the overachieving and feisty Kings got 34 points from Buddy Hield and held on to beat the Thunder, a victory that moved Sacramento within 1.5 games of San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers, the teams tied for the 7/8 seed.
In contrast, the Lakers, coming off an impressive win over Houston, were flat against a Pelicans team that sat Anthony Davis. The Lakers could not get stops and ultimately fell 128-115 to a team all but tanking. The inconsistent Lakers are now 29-30 on the season and 3.5 games out of the playoffs with 23 to go.
After this latest loss, LeBron James sounded a combination of frustrated and philosophical as he questioned the urgency his team played with. Here is his full quote, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.
“How many know what’s at stake if you’ve never been there?” James asked Saturday… “I’m playing devil’s advocate, you know? It’s kind of a fine line when you talk about that, because when you’ve never been there or know what it takes to actually shoot for something like that, sometimes you’re afraid to get uncomfortable.
“So you got to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. So I’m not saying that’s what we are as a whole. It kind of looks that way at times, that sometimes we’re afraid to be uncomfortable and kind of get out of our comfort zone and kind of, you know, have that sense of urgency from the jump, and not be afraid to actually go out and fail to succeed. So, I mean we have, what? Twenty-three games left. We’ll see what happens.”
He’s right — this is the first time through anything like this for the young Laker core. Much like the dreadful loss to Indiana right before the trade deadline when their minds were elsewhere, the young players are going through their first playoff push and they don’t grasp what is needed nightly if they are to make the postseason in a deep West. They are learning as they go — and learning some hard lessons.
The Lakers’ goal this season was to make the playoffs, but also to evaluate which of their young core — Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart. Which ones of those players can work as part of a LeBron led contending team, and fit in with another star player (whoever that ends up being). The results have been mixed. After these final 23 games, there is going to be some harsh assessments.
First though, if this team is going to reach its first goal of simply making the playoffs LeBron is going to have to carry the squad. He can’t count on that young core nightly, not yet.