The Los Angeles Lakers finally have both stars on the court. Anthony Davis returned last week after missing 29 games with calf and Achilles issues, while LeBron James recovered from a high ankle sprain and played his first game in a few weeks on Friday. It couldn't come at a better time, either; Los Angeles went 6-9 without either of their two superstars and took a corresponding tumble down the Western Conference playoff standings.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, the presence of LeBron and AD did not automatically correlate to wins. Davis returned on April 22 and the team still lost three of the four following games. LeBron's first game back on Friday was a close loss to the Kings in which The King missed a potential game-winning jumper. Los Angeles now sits at 36-27, the sixth seed in the West. The Portland Trail Blazers are one game behind them at the seventh seed and will be looking to overtake them in the final two weeks of the year.
This isn't terribly concerning in terms of the Lakers' championship hopes. LeBron and AD were going to need a few ramp-up games before getting back to their old selves. They're returning with enough time before the playoffs to do that, and having both fully healthy for the postseason was the only goal that mattered during this regular season after the shortest offseason in league history. Everything else, including playoff seeding, came second.
But nobody expected the Lakers to be at risk of having to participate in the NBA's play-in tournament this season, fully installed for the first time ever. The 7-10 seeds will all have to play some form of an elimination game in order to make the postseason. With the Mavericks' win over the Wizards last night, they moved up to the fifth seed and pushed the Lakers to just one game out of the play-in.
It wouldn't be the end of the world if the Lakers ended up in the play-in games. We can all be fairly sure that LeBron will not let his team lose two games in a row with a playoff berth on the line, as the Lakers would have to do if they finish the year as a seven-seed. But being that low in the standings will force L.A. to play either the Suns or Jazz (most likely), and while it's hard to fathom either of those two beating a star-studded Lakers team, they've been the two best teams in basketball all season long. Plus, there's a certain pride factor that comes with the defending champions being forced to play elimination games just to qualify for the playoffs. The NBA would absolutely love having their most famous team in the inaugural play-in tournament, but LeBron and his teammates would not for various reasons. Avoiding it will go a long way towards ensuring they'll get a good shot at defending their title.
The season is not yet over, though. L.A. has nine games left to play before the standings become final. The issue is that it's not a particularly easy slate, and the Lakers need to win at least half to ensure they don't end up in the play-in tournament. Even if they don't move up in the standings, it's even more important to build some momentum heading into the postseason after LeBron and Davis' absences. This last two-week stretch is the most important of the season for the Lakers.
It will be tough because of those nine games, only three could be considered "easy" wins: tonight's battle with the 26-38 Raptors, the May 12 matchup against the 16-48 Rockets, and the May 15 game against the 30-33 Pacers. They have three games against legitimate championship contenders (Nuggets, Clippers, and Suns) and two against playoff teams (Blazers, Knicks). Their final game on May 16 will come against the Pelicans, who currently sit three games out of the 10th seed and may very well be battling for their playoff lives on the last day of the season.
Looking at that lineup, the Lakers would probably be happy to come out of it at 5-4. That could be enough to avoid the play-in. But going just above .500 in that stretch means they'll be relying a lot on Dallas or Portland to lose a few of their final games. If Los Angeles wants to ensure they end up out of the play-in, they'll have to go 6-3 at least. That won't be easy.
If anyone can do it, LeBron and his Zero Dark Thirty mode can. Nobody is sounding any alarms. But the Lakers are closer than ever to the play-in tournament, and ending up there will make a repeat championship run supremely difficult. It's time for the Lakers to lock in.