Following a 1-1 stretch in their first two games following the NBA All-Star break, the Los Angeles Lakers are right back where they started their 25-game sprint towards the postseason (or early elimination): Three games back of the eighth and final Western Conference playoff seed.
The bad news for the Lakers, as our own Alex Regla noted in his preview of Monday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies, is that L.A. now has just 23 games to make up that three-game difference, and the team’s penchant of playing up or down to the level of their opponents might come back to bite them.
At the Lakers’ shootaround on Monday morning, LeBron James said the team can’t play down to their competition anymore. If they want to make the playoffs, they have to play with urgency:
LeBron was asked is LAL has to guard against complacency when facing a struggling MEM team and stated the uncomfortable truth about his team: "Nah, s---, we’re struggling. We can’t be looking past nobody. We struggling, too. We don’t have the privilege of looking past anybody"— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) February 25, 2019
That’s a nice sentiment, but until the Lakers back it up and give us a blowout over a bottom-feeder, it’s fair to wonder if it will ever happen.
As our own Christian Rivas pointed out yesterday, the Lakers are only 13-6 against the ten worst teams (record-wise) in the NBA, and 6-3 against the bottom-five teams. That may not seem that bad, but in a tight playoff chase, “giving away” six games like that could easily be the difference between making the playoffs and not, especially while sitting three games behind.
Human brains assign more importance to immediate events, especially in the case of playoff chases like this. That’s an understandable tendency, but the Lakers won’t simply make or miss the playoffs because of how they play in their final 25 games. All wins and losses throughout the season count the same, and just because they’re doing the basketball equivalent of cramming for a final exam right now doesn’t make all the time they spent proverbially not studying beforehand less important.
The Lakers are in the position they’re in because of how they played, not because of how they’ll play moving forward. If they can summon the sense of urgency James indicates they’ll need, they may have a shot at making up for their mistakes earlier in the year.
However, even if the Lakers play pretty well down the stretch and miss the postseason anyway (let’s say they go 16-7, for example), they won’t have missed the playoffs because they didn’t go, let’s say, 18-5 during one of the hardest portions of their schedule. Or at least such a stretch wouldn’t be entirely to blame.
No, if the Lakers miss the playoffs, they’ll have missed them because they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks, or more recently, the Atlanta Hawks and Anthony Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans.
The Lakers will have their next shot to not lose to a similarly hopeless opponent when they try to avoid getting Revenant-ed by the Grizzlies tonight, and James is right about one thing: The Lakers haven’t shown they’re good enough to look past anyone. It’s about time they played like it.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts, or listen to our latest episode on the LeBron James experience below. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.