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Russell Westbrook calls Sunday’s game against the Pelicans ‘must-win’ for play-in hopes

On an upward trajectory late in the season, the Lakers will head into New Orleans for a very important game against the Pelicans with lots of play-in game implications.

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Los Angeles Lakers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Lakers and Pelicans met, it was an unmitigated beatdown. The Lakers, still reeling from the latest Anthony Davis injury, looked lifeless, hopeless and ready to give up. The Pelicans were riding the wave of acquiring CJ McCollum and were amidst a four-game win streak.

But the two sides that will meet on Sunday are quite different in the short span between meetings. The Lakers have turned a corner of sorts in the last week and, despite being 2-2 in their last four games, feel like progress has been made. The Pelicans, meanwhile, have cooled of late, sporting a 3-6 record over their last nine games.

Most importantly, Sunday’s meeting holds big play-in game implications. The reality of the situation for the Lakers, who were envisioning titles and not play-in games many months ago, has fully dawned on the Lakers. A win and the Lakers create much-needed space between themselves and New Orleans in the standings as the two teams are in the ninth and tenth seed, respectively, after Wednesday’s games. A win also gives the Lakers a chance at winning the season series, a tiebreaker that could prove to be valuable at season’s end.

A loss? Then a new reality, one that might not even include a play-in game, starts to become very real for the Lakers.

“It’s a game that we definitely want to win,” Russell Westbrook said. “I think if we have our mindset in the right place and do what we’ve been doing playing the right, proper basketball, it’ll put us in a position to win the game. It’s going to be a playoff type atmosphere for us because it’s definitely a must-win, I believe, for our group.”

A team that has often stayed in the moment this season, the Lakers were acutely aware of what is at stake on Sunday after Wednesday’s loss to the Sixers. But with a game of this importance, it’s hard not to be aware of its magnitude.

“We know they’re not just going to give us anything,” Dwight Howard said. “No team has given us anything all year. If we want to win that game, we have to go take it. It’s going to be a tough game going into their home but Laker nation will be behind us and we should get a good win.”

While the Lakers have turned that corner in the last week, they still have only won two of the last four games. And even if their effort level was admirable on Wednesday while shorthanded, moral victories mean nothing in a playoff race. With the San Antonio Spurs winning on Wednesday, the margin between the Lakers and the 11th seed is down to two games while the Pelicans are in the middle just a half-game back of LA as well.

The Pelicans have a pair of games before meeting the Lakers, including one against the Spurs, which means by tip-off on Sunday, the Lakers could be anywhere from 1.5 games up on New Orleans to in the 10th seed.

None of that, though, is going to change how the Lakers approach this game as its significance will remain regardless of where they are in the standings.

“I think we’re gonna lace our shoes up and go out there and play some basketball,” Stanley Johnson said. “It’s the only thing we can do. I think we’re pretty good. I think they’re pretty good, too. That’s why I love playing competitive basketball is for these types of games…So we’re going to lace our shoes up and they’re going to lace their shoes up and we’re going to play some basketball.”

Sunday’s game won’t be the last against the Pelicans for the Lakers regardless if they make the play-in game with an April Fool’s Day clash in Los Angeles still on the docket as well. Given the close nature of the multiple games, the Lakers are treating the games like a mini playoff series.

“We have to win those games,” head coach Frank Vogel said. “Somewhat similar to what you would face in a playoff. You’re going to play them once, make some adjustments and play them again shortly after that. And then, likely, if we’re able to get, not discounting San Antonio, if we’re able to get into that play-in game, play them again a third time. Hopefully, our group’s collective playoff experience will pay off for us.”

The Lakers may not have envisioned themselves being in this position six months ago, but they’re aware of the gravity of the moment. If they’re to have any postseason games at all, Sunday’s game is mandatory to win.

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