As things stand, the Lakers will have the chance to defend their prestigious crown as 2021 Play-in Game Champions, a title reserved for truly ambitious teams. It’s one the Lakers earned last season when a one-eyed LeBron James did something Michael Jordan never could and led his team past the Warriors in last year’s inaugural play-in game and into the seventh seed.
It’s also a title they didn’t want (or expect) to have to defend this season. Last year was supposed to be an anomaly of an appearance caused by injuries, but nearly three-fourths of the way through the 2021-22 season, the Lakers are on pace for not only another trip to the play-in game, but this time an even worse seed.
Presently, the Lakers are the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference and would need to win two games to earn the No. 8 seed in the playoffs, one of those on the road. It’s far from where the team expected to be this season. The sliver of good news is that the Lakers have 24 games to get themselves out of their current predicament, but even head coach Frank Vogel sees that as unlikely.
“We know exactly where we are in the standings,” Vogel said after practice on Thursday. “We’re six (games) back from the six spot. We’re three-and-a-half (games) back from the seven spot. We’re one-and-a-half (games) back from the eight spot. We know that the goal would be to get to the top six. That’s a long shot, but still within reach if we come out strong. If we’re not able to get that, then getting into that first play-in game (is the goal).
“The first play-in game is double elimination. The 9-10 game is single elimination. Every game is going to matter. We’ll move up as much as we can in the standings. (But) more importantly than all of that, we want to play our best basketball down the stretch and peak going into those playoff series or games.”
The Lakers will have multiple games against the teams right above them in the standings to make up ground. They will play the Clippers, the current eighth seed, twice over the next week. They have one more game against Minnesota, the current seventh seed, on March 16 and have two games against Denver, the sixth seed, in the final week of the season.
Vogel noted those games “will carry extra importance” going forward. If the Lakers are looking to surge out of the gates, though, they’ll need to likely away with some impressive wins with Dallas, Golden State and Phoenix among the opponents in the team’s first nine games after the All-Star break.
Even then, it’s going to take some help for the Lakers to get out of the play-in game this season. If they’re unable to, it means another nail-biting appearance in the play-in game, but a chance to defend a storied title that no other NBA team has ever won*.
*except the Grizzlies