After months of uncertainty and questions with no answers, the Los Angeles Lakers will officially resume their season with a seeding game against the Clippers on Thursday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.
It’s really happening. Basketball is back.
Going into the season’s restart, the Lakers sit atop of the Western Conference with a record of 49-14 and only need to win three of their eight seeding games to clinch the No. 1 seed. However, the team that put them in that position is slightly different from the one they brought to Orlando.
While they’re still led by their superstar tandem of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, their starting point guard Avery Bradley opted out of the remainder of the season for personal reasons and was replaced by J.R. Smith. Additionally, the Lakers will not have Rajon Rondo for at least the next month after he suffered a fractured thumb in practice earlier this month. The team will also be integrating Dion Waiters, who joined before the shutdown but had not appeared in a game yet.
But even if the roster remained unchanged on paper, the team would still be a little different because of how much time has passed since their last competitive game on March 11. “Different” doesn’t necessarily mean “worse” though.
The Lakers went 2-1 in their scrimmage games and resembled the team they were before the season was suspended. However, for Danny Green, these next eight games will be about being even better than the team they used to be.
“We were good, but we weren’t where wanted to be,” Green said. “We played good basketball and lost to Brooklyn before the hiatus, so we want to be better.
“We want to step on the floor every time and have that same focus as if we’re playing Milwaukee or the Clippers, and continue to get better. We know we have to be better than that to win and be the last team standing because we know the Clippers are going to get better, Milwaukee’s going to be better; all the teams that are here are going to get better, so we have to be as good as that, if not better to be the last team standing.”
The Lakers’ first opportunity to get better will come on Thursday when they face off against the Clippers, who have also changed a bit from the last time they saw them on March 8. The Lakers are down 2-1 in the season series with the Clippers, but they won their last matchup with the Clippers 112-103.
There’s obviously some incentive for the Lakers to come out of Thursday’s game on top and tie the season series, but Green, Anthony Davis and even Frank Vogel denied that the game held any extra weight. However, Vogel is looking forward to seeing how both teams will match up after the four-month hiatus.
“It’s the first of the seeding games and our mission with these eight games is to get ready for the playoffs and be as healthy as possible,” Vogel said. “But we do have great respect for their organization and the team they put together. They’re one of the best teams in the league. So, more than anything, I think it’s gonna be a great measuring stick for where we’re at.
“Obviously, we still have a long way to go until we’re playoff ready, and you don’t sharpen yourselves as well against teams that are a lesser opponent than you do against a great team. So it’s definitely going to be a good test for us.”
The Clippers will be without a few of their key players on Thursday, so it won’t be a great a reflection of what we might see in a Western Conference Finals series between them, but Vogel doesn’t want that to change how the Lakers approach that game or any game while they’re in the Orlando bubble.
“There’s been a few weeks now that guys have had a chance to get their legs under them, so to speak, and our expectations for anytime we play anybody is to expect their best,” Vogel said. “And if we come in and guys aren’t in great shape or there’s some unexpected things, we know that can happen, but we’re expecting teams to be at full strength and at their best.”
Ultimately, that’s been the message in the Lakers’ locker room: to treat the eight seeding games like any other regular season game, even though the circumstances and environment they’re going to play in has changed drastically.
“We’ve been off for four months,” Davis said. “We want to use these games to get better going into the postseason. We’re going to treat these games like regular season games, like we have eight games left in the regular season, and come out and play our style of basketball.”
The Lakers and Clippers will tip-off at 6 p.m. PT on TNT nationally and Spectrum SportsNet locally.