On Friday, the Lakers were officially eliminated from playoff contention when they lost to Brooklyn, their fifth straight loss and 10th in 11 March contests to that point.
Since then, they’ve played quite well in consecutive entertaining home wins, beating Sacramento 111-106 on Sunday and Washington 124-106 on Tuesday.
Sure, the Kings and Wizards had won only a combined eight out of their previous 20 combined games. But L.A., missing their starting backcourt of Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, had been losing to teams with losing records.
This week, JaVale McGee and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have been hot, but it’s been LeBron James leading the way to wins, and he provided a reason why we’ve seen his typical dominance despite L.A.’s postseason dream having died: the Basketball Gods are still watching.
LeBron, averaging 26.0 points, 12.5 assists, 9.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals in the two games, explained why when I asked him about his approach considering the circumstances during the Spectrum SportsNet walk off interview on Sunday.
"I would never cheat myself," he said. "I know we're out the playoff race, but if I'm on the court, I'm going to play how I play, and I play to win. So, I will never cheat the game.
"There's such a thing called 'Game Gods.' And they're watching no matter what you're doing, and it's our obligation to go out and be a professional, and that's what I'm about."
It’s a message coach Luke Walton’s been trying to enforce through the 2018-19 barrage of injuries and resulting lack of cohesion that has plagued the squad.
"I've talked to the team about it a lot, as far as it being an honor and a privilege to play in this league, and we're coaching in this league, for all of us," Walton said. "This game of basketball has allowed us to have incredible opportunities in life. So, that's been more the message to the group.”
Walton played next to Kobe Bryant for several years, and knows all about how the best of the best honor the game.
“I think (LeBron) takes it very serious,” said Walton. “He's been the face of the NBA for however many years now. He's aware of that, and I think he takes that responsibility, he takes it very seriously."
Outside of James, the Lakers haven’t had many players that have consistently produced to their talent level this season, with myriad injuries proving the biggest inhibitor, but McGee and KCP have indeed found something of late.
“JaVale’s playing with a lot of energy right now and it’s reminding me of how he was to start the season, where he’s up above grabbing rebounds where no one else can get,” said Walton. “[He’s] keeping balls alive for us, diving to the rim, all those good things. KCP, as a shooter, he’s found himself a nice rhythm right now and shooters will do that. It is a lot of fun when he’s out there having these type of shooting nights.“
While KCP’s shooting rhythm has seen him hit 18 triples in the last four games, including six against the Wizards, McGee’s numbers have been borderline ridiculous: 23.3 points on 82.1 percent shooting plus 16.0 rebounds, 5.0 blocks and 1.3 steals in 32 minutes per game.
Yes, McGee had struggled to find the type of consistent energy and effectiveness he’s displayed of late after battling pneumonia in late December. By point of fact, he averaged 9.1 points, 7.1 boards and 1.4 blocks in January and 11.8 points, 5.7 boards and 0.9 blocks in February. He was asked on Tuesday what’s been behind his hot stretch.
“Just focus and hard work,” he responded. “My teammates have my back and me having my teammates back.”
Kenny Pope offered similar sentiment.
“My teammates have been looking for me and getting me open,” he said. “I’ve just been ready to shoot the past couple of games and days. I’m feeling good, my body has been feeling good. The way I’m releasing the ball, my rhythm has been feeling good. It’s all about just getting open and being consistent.”
And while the Lakers locker room was a happier place after a couple of wins, the reality of their season of course still hangs in the air.
“It’s been difficult in between days,” said LeBron. “Can’t sit here and lie. Knowing, mathematically, we won’t be in the postseason. It’s like March Madness for college kids for me. Being able to go to March Madness and play that game...at the end of the day once the game is here and I’m playing and I know I’m physically able to play, when I suit up, it’s all business.
“I never change my approach. I go out and try to make plays happen. Like I said, I can’t make every shot, but I try to make every play and make every play for my teammates. Make them feel great on the floor. Try to make plays for myself as well when I have the opportunity.”
Just as the Basketball Gods expect.