The Los Angeles Lakers’ victory Friday over Minnesota propelled them into eighth place in the Western Conference, edging ahead of the T-Wolves, Thunder and Mavericks in the playoff race. LA now also has the same number of losses as the 6th and 7th-place Clippers and Pelicans and just one more than the 5th-place Warriors. It is now conceivable that they could move up into 6th place or possibly even 5th.
The Lakers are playing the best basketball the team has played since they won the 2020 title. The team has won 5 of its last 6 games and 9 of its last 13. No other team in the West has been playing as well or has as much momentum. And no other team wants to face them in the playoffs.
But wherever they end up in the standings, the Lakers now have an outstanding chance to advance in the postseason at least as far as the Conference Finals, even if they have to win a play-in game to qualify for the playoffs.
Why the Lakers will make the Western Conference Finals:
The revamped lineup
Anthony Davis has been an unstoppable force, averaging 32 points over his last 4 games and 29 over his last 8. He’s also made 59 of his last 93 shots, a whopping 63.4% rate. Fans cringed when he collapsed to the floor Friday night, clutching his ankle. But he got back up and fought through the pain of a rolled ankle and dominated the game, scoring 17 fourth-quarter points. As long as that ankle doesn’t swell up too much, AD remains a match-up nightmare for opponents.
Now that LeBron James has returned to action, the Lakers have arguably the best, hardest-to-defend duo in the NBA. Even though LBJ is not at 100%, he remains a 20-point-per-game scoring threat that opponents have to respect.
But LeBron now has his strongest supporting cast, especially on the offensive end, since he’s joined the Lakers. He no longer has to take 20-25 shots per game or try to put the team on his back to win because the team now has so many other scoring threats.
D’Angelo Russell has averaged 18 points and 6.5 assists per game since arriving in the Russell Westbrook trade. He’s shooting 39% from beyond the three-point line, 55% on his two-point attempts and 77% from the free-throw line. His defense has been acceptable and he has fit in extremely well with his new teammates.
Austin Reaves has made massive strides in his second NBA season. He has scored in double figures in 13 straight games and 15 of his last 16, raising his season average to 12.4 points per game along with 3 assists while shooting 38% on threes, 62.5% on twos and 86% on his foul shots. He has played his way into a starting position in the backcourt alongside Russell.
The fifth starter, Jarred Vanderbilt, is the team’s defensive stopper, assigned each game to guard the opposition’s best scorer. But he also contributes on the offensive end, averaging nearly 8 points per game, shooting 59% on two-point tries and nearly 81% from the line.
The Lakers bench is now an integral part of the team. Dennis Schroder is a hard-nosed player, an outstanding ballhandler and passer who excels in the pick and roll. He has a dependable mid-range shot and averages nearly 13 points and 4.6 assists per game while connecting on 87% on his free throws.
Malik Beasley is the best pure shooter on the team who can heat up in a hurry from beyond the arc. He’s averaging 11 ppg as a Laker while shooting 36% from deep on a team-high 7 attempts per game.
Troy Brown is a skilled man defender with a first-rate shooting stroke, hitting 37% on his threes and 89% from the line. Rui Hachimura adds 9 points per game, has a nice mid-range shot and has rebounded and defended well. Wenyon Gabriel provides energy and an occasional hoop inside. And although Lonnie Walker has fallen out of the rotation, he remains a scoring threat that coach Darvin Ham can still call on. He netted 20 points to key an important win recently over Oklahoma City and is averaging 12 ppg.
It is difficult for an opponent to guard against all the Lakers scoring threats and will remain that way as long as both AD and LeBron stay healthy.
Four teams will face off in play-in games to qualify for the final two positions in the playoffs. Here’s how it works:
- The 7th place team hosts the 8th place. The winner advances to play the 2nd place team, which right now is Memphis.
- The loser of that game then plays the winner of the 9th vs 10th place game. The victor of that contest moves on to play the 1st place team, probably Denver. That means the 9th and 10th-place teams would have to win twice to move into the playoffs.
- Meanwhile, the other first-round games will feature 3rd place (likely Sacramento) against 6th place while 4th (Phoenix) plays 5th (as of now, the Warriors).
The bottom line for the Lakers: it appears that their best scenario would be to climb up two spots to finish in 6th place. The reason why? Not only would they avoid a play-in game but their match-ups on the road to the Conference Finals would clearly seem to be most favorable.
Playoff basketball is a different animal than the regular season. The stakes are higher and the atmosphere intensifies, especially in hostile visiting arenas. Both James and Davis have been through the pressure cooker of the postseason together and Lebron has experienced more playoff games than any other player in NBA history.
If the Lakers finish 6th, they will likely have a first-round match-up against Sacramento, which just ended a long 16-year playoff drought. As good as the Kings have been during this regular season, and they’ve been very good, the team has not been playoff-tested. Indeed, only a few of its key players have any postseason experience.
If LA won that series, they’d presumably face the young Grizzlies next. A year ago Memphis beat Minnesota in a first-round series. But they then lost all 3 road games while losing to Golden State in 6 games. Like the Kings, they have yet to prove that they are ready to make a deep playoff run.
That’s not to say that beating Sacramento and Memphis will be simple or painless. But getting through them is a decidedly easier path than having to battle the Nuggets, Suns, Clippers or battle-tested Warriors in the first and second rounds.
If the Lakers move up to 7th place, or even remain in 8th, they’d have to win a play-in game. If victorious, they’d follow a somewhat similar but potentially tougher path. They’d probably start with Memphis in round one. If they advance to round two they’d square off against the winner of Sacramento and the 6th place team, likely either the Warriors, Clippers or Pelicans.
What if they moved up to 5th place? That road paradoxically seems more difficult than 6th place would be. First, the Lakers would probably play the Suns, which now features the impressive foursome of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton. If LA survived that match-up, next up would likely be first-place Denver, which has MVP favorite Nikola Jokic and was the best team in the West for most of the season.
Falling to 9th or 10th unsurprisingly creates the toughest possible route. They’d have to win 2 play-in games just to advance to a first-round match-up against the first-place team, probably Denver, with the Suns, Warriors or Clippers likely up next.
The standings are not yet locked-in, and changes could occur, even at the top. Denver has stumbled a bit down the stretch but still has a two-game lead with five games left. They should finish with the best record in the West, although it’s possible Memphis could overtake them.
Also, the defending champion Warriors with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Anthony Wiggins, could still overtake Phoenix for 4th place.
But as of now, 6th place represents the best chance for the Lakers to reach the Conference Finals. In fact, even though they likely won’t enjoy home-court advantage, their route could even be easier than the one the Nuggets face.
Assuming they advance to the second round, Denver will then likely have to beat either the Suns, Warriors or Clippers… or perhaps the Lakers. Any of those teams could seriously challenge the Nuggets and provide a far tougher test than most first-place teams have to face in second-round match-ups.
The remaining 5 games on the Lakers’ schedule, at Houston and Utah, a potentially crucial “road game” against the Clippers, and home games against Phoenix and Utah, are not extraordinarily difficult. They should be able to win at least three of those games, but triumphing in four would be even better.
Meanwhile the Clippers, in addition to playing the Lakers, have a tough road game at Phoenix and a home game vs injury-depleted Portland. Golden State is home vs OKC and has three games on the road, where they’ve struggled all season, against Denver, Sacramento and Portland. And New Orleans has home contests vs the Kings, Grizzlies and Knicks and a road game in Minnesota.
Even though many positions in the Western Conference standings are still up for grabs, the path to the Finals is wide open for the Lakers. Now they can and should take advantage to advance at least to the Conference Finals.