Final Stretch: Can Lakers Rally Into the Playoffs?

By Kevin Ding - Senior Writer

Right now the Lakers are the guy who stubbed his toe and is hopping around the room, trying to shake it off. Still wincing, he emerges from the painful fog to realize that he was looking for his keys before he stubbed his toe.

He just can’t quite yet remember where he left them.

The keys are the somewhere, though. And they definitely work.

Unlocking the path to a Lakers playoff berth isn’t starting from scratch. It will not be that different from what they already held in their hands with first-round playoff home-court advantage at the time injuries derailed them on Christmas.

Just gotta find those keys.

As the NBA All-Star break ends and regular-season games resume Thursday, there is an “escape room” feel to where the Lakers are and what they are doing. Find those keys, rediscover the winning formula, and do it before the clock on this season runs out.

For a Lakers fan base that hasn’t seen a team even threaten to make the playoffs lately, this is going to be quite a thrill ride: From all those player-development-project games in years past with no playoff implications … to extreme suspense every single night the rest of this season in LeBron James' first stretch run with the Lakers.

KCP and Ingram help Rondo up off the floor

KCP and Ingram help Rondo up off the floor

To be very clear about how All-Star is not the midpoint of the season, only 30 percent of the Lakers’ schedule is left to play. It shapes up to be 25 games’ worth of serious intensity.

For the fans, what an opportunity is to embrace the excitement of the uncertainty.

For the team, the mandate is to embrace the challenge of it.

Even if many league observers have trouble thinking a healthy LeBron team won’t enjoy a run of success, the numbers crunchers are peeking up from their databases to state otherwise. Every single moment and every possible improvement will affect those precarious odds--and be a clue to the Lakers finding those keys ... from Lonzo Ball’s ankle fibers to Reggie Bullock’s quick trigger to Lance Stephenson’s air-chord timing.

The ultimate best course of action when you stub your toe, of course, once you understand all those howling nerve endings down there aren’t going to kill you is simple: Elevate it.

As things sit, the Lakers are 10th in the Western Conference, three games behind the Clippers and two behind the Kings. They need to rise at least to eighth.

And Kyle Kuzma already has a gut feeling the keys are on the defensive end of the floor.

“We just need to have fun out there, play as a team, play some defense,” he said. “That’s kind of the problem.”

Asked to identify the critical element in his underdog road from not even being one of the better kids in his group of friends in Flint, Mich., to being named NBA All-Star Rising Stars MVP over the weekend, Kuzma answered: “Self-confidence.”

If the Lakers need a spokesperson for beating the odds with hard work and basketball dedication in their pursuit of this playoff berth, Kuzma’s a natural. He’s not lacking in belief at all.

“The playoffs? Oh, I’m not worried,” he said. “We’ll be in. Yeah, I’m not worried.”

Confidence is going to be fundamental to any Lakers run from here.

Do you truly believe you’re a playoff team? Or are you just kinda hoping you can get in?

Here’s how Rajon Rondo put it last month: “We’ve got LeBron. I don’t know when’s the last time he missed the playoffs.”

Previous teams trying to rally into the playoffs might be discouraged by their results to date. The Lakers, however, come at it from a different perspective: They can point to the success they’ve had when healthy this season.

We’re going to be in the playoffs, but we’ve got to figure out ways to advance in the playoffs.

Kyle Kuzma

At 22-17 with James in uniform, the Lakers can equate that to a .564 winning percentage. That would place them sixth in the West right now.

It’s why Rondo was moved to joke once the Lakers reached the 50-game mark of the season: “I missed 60 games; LeBron missed 48. It’s tough to assess.” Kuzma is sounding the same note now, saying: “We haven’t had a team all year because we’ve been hurt. We’ve only played like eight games as a full roster.”

It matters what these particular guys believe and promote. The three most vocal Lakers on the practice court all season have been James, Rondo and Kuzma.

And they don’t feel that they’ve had a fair shot at leading together yet.

They feel that they are a playoff team.

Kyle Kuzma against the Sixers

Kyle Kuzma against the Sixers

Despite being the youngster, Kuzma is the one non-newcomer to the team among the three. In a sense, he understands the situation better than the others.

“When you’re a Laker, you’re held to different type of standard,” Kuzma said. “Playoffs, championships … that’s all people in L.A. care about—more so the championships. We haven’t been able to do that [in the playoffs] the past six years. It’s our job to get us there this year.”

And whereas a lot of fingers will be pointed at James because of his celebrated summer signing and his 13-year streak of not missing the playoffs, this is a chance for Kuzma and other young Lakers to play without fear of failure—but with a lot to gain.

Kuzma has already declared his goal of trying to make the All-Star Game next season. That journey starts now—long before all his usual 5 a.m. summer wakeup calls to get in the gym and all the points he’ll need to score early next season to impress voters—because Kuzma’s All-Star credibility would be boosted enormously by lifting the Lakers now into some high-profile postseason moments.

To get there, it will take his game and his confidence.

“We’re going to be in the playoffs,” Kuzma said, “but we’ve got to figure out ways to advance in the playoffs.”

The idea that immense pressure is about to fall on James the rest of the season is offset by two facts.

Lakers fans might’ve learned it when he first said it on Media Day at the start of this training camp, but James has scoffed at the idea of pressure on him for a long, long time. Too much has been expected of him for too long as a basketball prodigy, and now too much has been accomplished by him for too long as an NBA legend.

Besides James shrugging off pressure, though, there is something else James has said, just not as often.

He isn’t going to be judged by one Lakers season anyway.

“I’ve got a lot more game to play,” James said Saturday. “I’ve got a lot, a ton, more years to play this game and suit up and be in a Lakers uniform.”

That’s not to say James isn’t locked in on making the playoffs this season. He also said: “That’s the only thing that’s going to happen in my mental space for these next two months, pretty much how I can get this team playing the type of level of basketball we were playing before my injury.”

I’ve got a lot more game to play. I’ve got a lot, a ton, more years to play this game and suit up and be in a Lakers uniform.

LeBron James

But James’ confidence will not be wilting under the pressure of feeling like this is a make-or-break moment for his legacy. And in an age when superstars are frequently taking one-year contracts to keep options open, James has never indicated there will be anything fleeting about his choice to join the Lakers.

“When you look up in the banners and you look at all the championships and you look at all the greats that have come through L.A., from Jerry West to George Mikan and Elgin Baylor to Magic [Johnson] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], James Worthy, and Kobe [Bryant], Shaq [O’Neal], whoever you name … just to be a part of that franchise and be a part of that history, it means a lot to me,” James said, reflecting during All-Star Weekend on Lakers lore. “Hopefully, I can do my part where someday I can hang up there with the rest of those guys.”

That is James’ lofty aspiration with the Lakers. And judgment will not be passed on a single regular season, no matter how suspenseful these next 25 games feel.

But if these next 25 games can successfully end the Lakers’ longest drought ever without a playoff berth, it certainly would not hurt as James builds his brand with this franchise.

A high-stakes, against-all-odds escape from the gotta-shake-it-off predicament in which the team finds itself now could turn this into one heck of a start to LeBron’s Lakers tenure.

* * *

Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.

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