With their 116-105 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday night, the Lakers (28-13) moved into second place in the Western Conference standings, and a tie with the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets for second-best record in the NBA. They only trail the top-seeded Utah Jazz by 1.5 games. For an injury-riddled team that has clearly not put their foot all the way on the gas so far mentally or physically following the shortest turnaround in NBA history, that’s kind of astounding.
It’s also a far cry from where the Lakers entered the All-Star break, dropping their final two games and looking like a team that desperately needed a rest, both mentally and physically. But their four-game winning streak since the break ended — without starters Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol — has begged the question: Could the Lakers actually end up with the best record in the West? Maybe, but it’s not something they’re discussing in the locker room.
“We haven’t really talked about it,” said Lakers star LeBron James. “If it gets to a point where we can capture it, I mean, why not, but we haven’t talked about it all. We haven’t talked about seeding all year. We just talk about playing championship basketball. Through wins, through losses, whatever the case may be, that’s what we talk about.”
The Lakers have played that level of basketball over their last four games, and are 12-2 without Davis when they also have both James and starting point guard Dennis Schröder in the lineup. With those two playmakers and their staunch defense, the Lakers can compete on pretty much any night, which makes the prospect of how good they can be upon Davis’ return — if he can get to anything close to full health — a scary thought for any potential playoff opponents, no matter where the Lakers end up in the bracket.
“The West is so competitive I don’t think you’re ever out of the seeding race, but that’s not our goal,” said Lakers guard Alex Caruso. “Our goal isn’t to finish the regular season first in the West or first in the NBA. It’s to win a championship at the end.”
The Lakers obviously won’t be able to do that without Davis, but they’re working on what they can work on without him. Their defense is ramping up closer to the title-winning level we saw in the bubble. They’ve still managed the fifth-best defense in the NBA — allowing 107.7 points per 100 possessions — since Davis went down, and are still first in defensive rating (106) for the season. They’ve also went to a more pick and roll heavy offense since coming back from the break, creating added comfort for sixth man Montrezl Harrell, who is averaging 19 points per game on a ridiculous 68.1% shooting since the break.
Making sensible adjustments that allow them to win more games has been a focus for the Lakers since the break, which allowed them two rare practices as they ramped back up after treating the first half of the season mostly like an adjustment-less, extended preseason. Frank Vogel says the team won’t be practicing or shooting around at all during this current stretch of schedules that is seeing them play eight games in 12 days, but during the bubble and so far this season the Lakers have gotten used to making more adjustments in the film room than they can during practice.
“Coming out of the All-Star break, our focus has been on improving the stuff that we need to improve and holding ourselves accountable so we do it more consistently. That was really the only difference between us in the first half and us in the second half so far,” Caruso said. “Just being able to hold each other accountable and making sure that we’re not messing up on half the plays, it’s one out of every five or one out of every six, and trying to build and do that moving forward.”
As long as they keep doing that and continue to get healthier, they’re confident they can travel any route they need to traverse as they look to defend their title. What seed they end up with doesn’t matter to them, and neither does their record, as long as they know they’re playing the way they need to when the games really start to matter.
“We want to continue to get better, and we’ve gotten better since the break,” James said. “But most important for our ball club, it’s two things: It’s playing championship basketball every night, and being healthy. When we’re healthy and we’re full, we can compete vs. anybody in the world, so that’s what’s important to us.”