Officially, the Lakers have only had 14 practices this season. Unofficially, they’ve had a lot more, many of which you’ve been able to watch on TV. And while they aren’t practicing as a team on Saturday as they look to rest their legs, they have nine more scrimmages against NBA teams that fans will be able to watch down the stretch.
Yes, the results of those “scrimmages” technically count in the standings, and sure, the Lakers say they want to win them, but it’s also clear that in a year that’s seen them repeatedly admit that their real practices are their regular season games, the team is treating their last nine matchups before the playoffs like a glorified preseason schedule.
“For the most part we’re using these games as our practices and still trying to figure each other out,” volunteered Lakers star Anthony Davis after the team lost to the Sacramento Kings on Friday night.
And despite Davis calling the Lakers’ prior two games against the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards “must-win” before the team went 1-1 in them, his mindset isn’t all that surprising. After all, it’s clear to anyone watching that the Lakers haven’t fully ratcheted up their defensive intensity in these games, and that they’re very much still experimenting with their rotation.
We haven't played much defense since we got back from that East Coast road trip. We're still #1 in Defensive Rating for the whole season, but we're just 21st in the league since that point. Gotta get our focus and intensity back on that end of the floor in particular.— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) May 1, 2021
Take the center position, for example. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel has repeatedly said that the team will need all three of Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol for the postseason, but against the Kings he found time to play all three in the same game, despite center also being Davis’ best position and a look the team is surely going to go to a lot when it gets to winning time in the postseason.
But winning clearly isn’t the only goal the Lakers have right now for these games. Getting on the same page and looking at a variety of different lineups are objectives that currently appear to supersede the results for this team.
“We’re going to look at as many things as we can down the stretch,” Vogel said of his three-headed center rotation after the game. And in a somewhat stunning admission, he also volunteered that he thinks their acclimation process may extend into the postseason (emphasis mine).
“We don’t have enough time to look at everything. We don’t have enough time for those guys to really find the chemistry necessary for the playoffs, but we’ve got to make the best of it,” Vogel said. “Everybody is in their own unique situation and I believe that over these final nine games and into the playoffs we’re going to find the right rhythm and timing and chemistry and have success in the playoffs, but it’s going to be a little bit bumpy on the way.”
As far as reasons for confidence, the Lakers do have a few in their back pocket. For one, they just saw last year how much Davis and co-star LeBron James can raise their games in the postseason when it matters most, and they did so after a mostly lethargic performance in the team’s eight seeding games prior to the playoffs. However, James warned that no situation is exactly the same, even if their past performance can give them a bit of confidence.
“Every season is its own challenge,” James said. “Obviously the experience of last year is totally different from what’s going on this year, but we can hang our hats on knowing how we can perform in the postseason. We have a lot of guys that have returned from our postseason team, even though we have some big guys that are in other places now, but we have a lot of experience in the postseason on how to make a run, how to handle adversity and we know we can always hang our hat on that.”
Still, past performance isn’t going to win the Lakers a championship. That will be up to the current version of the team.
“Whether (our experience) results in wins, that’s for us. The game is played in between the four lines and not on experience or on paper or things of that nature. You’ve got to go out and do it, too,” James said.
And for all the similarities, this is also a very different situation than the Lakers had last year going into the bubble, something Vogel made sure to point out, even if he agrees with James that some elements of their prior experience can translate.
“We were learning each other, or re-learning each other, during that restart last year and it’s a little bit different. We have new teammates this year, and guys coming off of a long layoff because of injury, not a long layoff because of the pandemic,” Vogel said. “It’s going to be a little bit bumpy along these final nine games, but we saw last year that it was bumpy going into the playoffs and if you just have a growth mindset during this stretch, you can still prepare for the playoffs and have success.”
Despite all of those differences though, the Lakers are mostly handling things the same, in part because they don’t have much of a choice. They didn’t choose to get injured. They did choose to add Drummond and make him a starter, but they now have to deal with the hurdles that decision brings as they attempt to adjust to a new teammate in such limited time. They can’t use up their legs on two-hour practice sessions with just a few weeks to go until the games really count, and as a result are using games to work out the kinks and get everyone on the same page.
Davis didn’t want to answer if he felt like the Lakers’ poor play while treating the seeding games like practices last year before looking dominant on their run to the title gave him more confidence in this year’s team. But he did say that while the Lakers’ situation is not ideal, they don’t necessarily have a great alternative now that they’re here.
“I can say this: I’d rather go through it now than in the playoffs, where it takes three or four games and now that’s a whole series and we can lose that series. I’d rather go through it now,” Davis said. “That way going into the playoffs we’re back, adjusted to one another, recovering for each other and rolling. So even though it sucks to lose, I’d rather find our way now, find our path now with each other than having to go through it in the playoffs.”
Davis is still confident that the Lakers can get enough out of these makeshift practices to reach their full potential.
“We’re just trying to adjust and get used to each other again, but we’re going to figure it out. We’re going to be fine,” Davis said. “No one has their head down or is kind of sad because we’re losing games or anything like that. We know we’re going to be fine. It’s an adjustment period getting guys back and figuring roles out again, but we’ve got nine games left to get it going.”
But with so few matchups left to treat like practices, they’re running out of time to do so, and that’s without mentioning they currently only lead the Dallas Mavericks by half a game for the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference.
Still, Davis isn’t panicking.
“We don’t want to lose. We do want to take a step in the right direction every time we step on the floor and gain some momentum going into the playoffs, but it really doesn’t matter where we are (in the standings),” Davis said. “We’re very confident in ourselves. We know what our team is capable of. We know that once we reach the playoffs it’s a different story, but we’re still trying to get adjusted to each other.”