Now that the Lakers have officially locked up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the first time since 2010, they can officially shift their focus to getting ready for the playoffs and preparing for their first-round matchup.
Or, at least they could do that last part, if that matchup was decided yet. Unfortunately for them, their opponent in the first round is still very much up in the air.
In the NBA’s restart format, the ninth seed only has to be within four games of the eighth seed to force a “play-in round,” in which the ninth-seeded team would have to beat the eight-seeded team twice in order to make the playoffs, while the eighth-seeded team would only have to win once.
As things stand right now, the Memphis Grizzlies are in the eighth spot, but are only 2 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs, 2.5 games up on the New Orleans Pelicans, 3 games ahead of the Sacramento Kings and 3.5 games above the Phoenix Suns. So yes, a play-in game (with tiebreakers determining which of the Spurs or Blazers would be in it, if the season ended today) seems nearly assured.
What that means for the Lakers is that they can’t exactly sit around and get too much of a head start on game-planning for whoever their eventual opponent is. And while head coach Frank Vogel laughed and said “I’m not going to go there” when a reporter attempted to get him to reveal if there was any team he’d prefer to face (even without naming them), he did admit that whichever team makes it, the Lakers will have to take them more seriously than they would in a normal year.
“I will say that all these teams that are competing for that eight spot, I don’t believe we’re going to get a typical eight seed in that matchup. The West is loaded, there’s a lot of good teams in there, and we’re going to get a team with some serious firepower,” Vogel said.
The fashionable pick to give the Lakers problems has become the Blazers. Anonymous league insiders are picking Portland to beat the Lakers, as is TNT analyst Charles Barkley. Portland’s star guard, Damian Lillard, has said he thinks his team can beat L.A. if they get in, and starting shooting guard Danny Green has admitted that the Lakers see Portland as the biggest threat of any prospective opponent.
After the Lakers locked up the No. 1 seed on Monday night, Davis echoed that he thought Portland had been playing impressively, but he’s also trying not to think too far ahead.
“Whoever we’re gonna see in the eighth seed, we’re going to obviously respect them and try to go out and win that series,” Davis said.
It will still likely be another week or two before the Lakers know who that team will be, but with the race for the spot creating a more competitive atmosphere than normal to get in, the purple and gold will have to make sure they don’t do too much coasting to the finish line, and get ready to face a team — whoever it is — that had to scrap and claw for the honor of facing them in the first round. It sounds like they know that, and are preparing accordingly.