With the NBA’s stretch run upon us, the topics of conversation now shift to who can challenge the Warriors and whether LeBron James will miss the playoffs in his first season in L.A.
The Lakers open post-break action at Staples Center against the Rockets on Thursday, their first action in their home gym since facing off against their co-tenants, the Clippers, back on Jan. 31. The Grammy Awards displaced them for weeks, resulting in a 1-4 stretch that has dropped L.A. below .500 for the first time since Nov. 7.
The Lakers closed the trip with a demoralizing 117-113 loss in Atlanta on Feb. 12, adding the Southeast Division’s cellar dweller to a list of teams they’ve lost to that just makes you want to shake your head.
If the Lakers ultimately miss the playoffs, you’ll be able to point to setbacks against the Hawks, Knicks, Cavs, Grizzlies and Wizards as to why. Forward Kyle Kuzma went out of his way to throw shade during All-Star Weekend, telling Sirius XM NBA Radio that “I’d rather be talked about bad in L.A. than play in Orlando and not get talked about,” but the Magic swept his Lakers this season, winning both games despite LeBron’s presence.
James missed 17 games between Dec. 27 and Jan. 29 and an additional game against the Warriors on Feb. 2. The Lakers went 6-12 in his absence and almost certainly wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in had he not suffered a significant groin strain in the Christmas Day blowout of Golden State that changed everything.
After wrapping up a 127-101 win over the Warriors despite losing James in the third quarter, L.A. was sporting a 20-14 record, on track to surpass its projected win total set at 48 by the Westgate SuperBook that now looks destined to be won by naysayers who bet the under.
The Westgate’s latest prop asks simply whether the Lakers will be able to reach the playoffs or not, offering +120 odds if you’re still a believer while laying a -140 tag on ‘no’ since that’s currently chalk with the Clippers a full three games on them in the race for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference. Sacramento, currently ninth at 30-27, is two games up on the Lakers (28-29).
The lead is by no means insurmountable, but the Lakers must overcome all the gimmes they’ve let slip and James’ longest absence of his career by pulling off a few significant upsets. Despite lingering concern that his injury isn’t fully healed, LeBron declared himself good to go after an All-Star Game where he helped the team he hand-picked stage a dramatic second-half rally past Team Giannis.
After hosting Houston, the Lakers close February with a home-and-home against the Pelicans sandwiched around a trip to Memphis to face the depleted Grizzlies. All of those games are winnable.
L.A. hopes to get point guard Lonzo Ball back from an ankle injury in March, which is important since another five-game trip awaits where it has to play in Toronto and Milwaukee. The month also sees the Lakers host the Bucks on March 1, followed by the Clippers, Nuggets, Celtics, Nets and Kings, Wizards and Hornets. None of those games can be deemed locks.
The team’s April slate consists entirely of teams that would currently make the playoffs – OKC, Golden State, the Clippers, Utah, and Portland. Although I fully expected the Lakers to make the playoffs when the season began, the challenges they’ll have to overcome over the next seven weeks makes it difficult to forecast a positive outcome.
If you’re getting in on the Westgate’s Lakers’ playoff prop, my recommendation is to ride ‘no.’ James will have a big summer ahead of him filming the remake of Space Jam anyway.
Lakers at Grizzlies (Monday): For this week’s free picks, I do think the Lakers will handle business at FedEx Forum and would lay a possession against the Grizzlies. LAKERS
Hawks at Rockets (Monday): I’m also a big fan of riding the ‘over’ in Hawks-Rockets that same night since James Harden is getting tired of playing hero ball and should share it more often with backcourt mate Chris Paul getting healthier, center Clint Capela likely back and the team that employs the fastest pace in the NBA in town. OVER
Last week: 3-4