It’s come to this for the Lakers: Make up two games on the Spurs in the final five or miss the play-in tournament, meaning they will be a draft lottery team.
General manager Rob Pelinka with the help of superstar LeBron James formulated a roster that was supposed to compete for a championship. It had to, quite honestly, because most of the roster was so old.
James (37), Carmelo Anthony (37), Dwight Howard (36), Trevor Ariza (36), Wayne Ellington (34), and Russell Westbrook (33) were expected to take the Lakers back to the top of the Western Conference. Of course, Anthony Davis was tabbed as the centerpiece, while Kendrick Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker were supposed to add younger support.
The season has been a nightmare, and that’s an understatement. The Lakers look old, uninterested, and overmatched, despite the brilliance of James. Davis, as has been his pattern, can’t stay healthy and appears more engaged with his sideline apparel while injured than being the unquestioned leader.
Westbrook, erratic in recent years, has been even more so, unable to regain his Oklahoma City form and becoming an offensive liability with his inability to make jump shots. James has put up MVP-caliber numbers and has a chance at the scoring title but has missed time with two injuries.
The result is a ghastly 31-46 record, fighting the Pelicans and Spurs for the final play-in spot. If the Lakers fail to make the playoffs, it will go down as one of the more disappointing seasons in professional sports history.
There was title talk in Los Angeles in October, with James calling out those who criticized the age of the roster.
Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. The Lakers are 4-15 since the All-Star break and haven’t won consecutive games since early January. They have been embarrassing and noncompetitive in stretches, and too old and tired in others.
Still, they have a chance to reach the play-in but would have to win twice for the opportunity to face the Suns in the opening round. And Phoenix will not take any pity on their rivals, especially after Davis commented that if he had not been injured during last year’s playoff matchup, the Lakers would have prevailed.
Barring a long playoff run, there will be major offseason changes, with coach Frank Vogel likely done after three seasons. The team’s issues aren’t all Vogel’s fault, but he can’t survive this turmoil.
“We’ve got to stay in the fight; we have to give ourselves a chance,” Vogel said. “If we get into the play-in game at full strength, we know we’ve got a shot.”
Westbrook went through a difficult period on and off the floor. Home fans were jeering each time he attempted a 3-pointer. Opponents were chiding him after missed jumpers. He said his family was getting criticized and berated on social media because of his performances.
But he’s played better of late, with the hopes that he fosters one final push with Davis and James recovering from injuries.
“Each month throughout the course of the season he’s gotten a little bit better and a little more comfortable in our system and with these teammates,” Vogel said of Westbrook. “We’ve got a brand new group and he’s used that time to settle in. I think he’s slowing down. I think he’s taking better shots and his efficiency is up.
“And if there’s any chance [Davis and James] can be out there, they will be.”
Howard, who won a title with the Lakers in 2019-20, has become a voice of reason in his later years. Vogel has misused him at times, benching him when the Lakers desperately needed a big man. But he remains optimistic that something unforeseen will happen.
“It’s a little shocking, but anything can happen when you play this sport,” Howard said. “We’ve been getting every team’s best shot and it’s not a good feeling knowing how we wanted to start the season and knowing where we thought we would be right now. We wish we would be in a better place, but sometimes life throws you some hard times and you’ve got to figure out a way to push through them. Everyone is giving enough effort and energy. We want to win. It’s not like we’re going out there saying let’s just give up. It’s been tough. You’ve just got to keep fighting.”
LENDING AN EAR
Durant a comfort to injured Moore
Villanova’s celebration after beating Houston to advance to the men’s Final Four last Saturday in San Antonio was tainted by the torn Achilles’ tendon suffered by guard Justin Moore. Villanova’s second-leading scorer had successful surgery this past week and got some encouraging words from another baller who had to recover from a torn Achilles’: Kevin Durant.
Durant tore his Achilles’ during the 2019 NBA Finals while with the Warriors and missed the 2019-20 season with the Nets before returning to previous form. At 33, Durant remains one of the NBA’s top players.
Villanova coach Jay Wright knows Durant through USA Basketball and arranged communication with Moore.
“I called Sean Ford at USA Basketball to get Kevin’s number,” Wright said. “And Kevin, I texted Kevin. He called me. And Kevin said, ‘I was watching that and it looked just like — I knew it when he went down, it looked just like mine.’ So, we talked for a while about it.”
Durant offered to talk with Moore about the recovery process and the mental challenges of returning from such a serious injury. It was Durant’s idea, and he has become a mentor and idol to many younger players.
“And what was so impressive to me was he said, ‘I’d like to talk to him, talk to the parents about the process,’ “ Wright said. “He listed himself, Klay Thompson, a couple other guys, I can’t remember. He [said], ‘Look, these guys had it in the NBA. And people in the NBA know now that you can come back from that.’ ”
Achilles’ injuries used to serve as a major obstacle in the careers of NBA players. But modern rehabilitation and technology have allowed players to return from such injuries within one year. Moore is a true junior, so he could redshirt next season and return to Villanova as a fifth-year senior.
“[Durant] said, ‘Earlier, before me, when that happened to you [years ago], NBA people thought you were done,’ ” Wright said. “But so many people have come back from that now, I want him to know that he’s not done and NBA people know that, too.”
Durant, once considered one of the NBA’s nice guys before leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State, has heard years of criticism from fans, NBA pundits, and even other players, and he appeared to harden. He also developed a sometimes biting presence on social media, where he fires back at fans and criticism.
But this is the good side of Durant, the one who is engaging and understands his role as a mentor. He reached out to Moore during the Nets’ playoff drive, understanding the young man needed encouragement.
“We talked about the process coming back,” Wright said of Durant. “He said, ‘I’ll explain it to him. Any time through his process he wants to use me, I’ll do it for him.’ So I said, ‘Great.’ And I gave him Justin’s number and he FaceTimed Justin. And they had a great talk. Justin said it was really comforting to know that he’s got him as kind of an adviser on his way through this.”
Raptors’ season a pleasant surprise
After trading Kyle Lowry to the Heat and coming off a 27-45 season, this was supposed to be another rebuilding year for coach Nick Nurse and his Raptors. The Raptors were young and athletic, but they weren’t proven and had lost one of their franchise players.
Yet it was apparent early in the season that Toronto would give opponents fits with its size and athleticism. And the Raptors are now a dark-horse contender in the Eastern Conference.
Pascal Siakam is having a bounce-back season, including 40 points Monday against the Celtics, while Scottie Barnes is a premium defender and Rookie of the Year candidate. Fred VanVleet made his first All-Star team, while Gary Trent Jr. and OG Anunoby are complementary players who can lead the team in scoring on any night.
The Raptors have rebuilt with a bunch of rangy athletes and good players, not necessarily spectacular ones. Nurse knew he had a contending club in the preseason but needed time to mesh his new players with his veterans.
The result has been an all-but-guaranteed playoff spot and a shot at the fifth seed in the East.
“It’s a really enjoyable group to work with each day and coach,” Nurse said. “They’ve taken to digging into the game preps and game plans after a somewhat shaky start. It’s just getting used to it, but they’re into it now. They do like each other. There’s not much angst or issues going on, we just go out and play. And when we have a night we don’t play so well, we go back to work and try to get the next one. We’ve done a good job of bouncing back, riding the ups and downs, and riding the waves of the season. It’s pretty enjoyable.”
The Raptors rely on defense, physicality, and 3-point shooting. VanVleet and Trent have gained reputations as strong shooters in the backcourt, but Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, and Anunoby have given the Raptors shooting from the frontcourt. Nurse continues to run out players who are big, physical, and relish defending. That was the philosophy that helped the Raptors win the title three years ago.
This team isn’t on that level, but no team wants to play the Raptors in the first round. They will be a difficult out.
“I think there’s some good leadership there,” Nurse said. “I think the work ethic of the guys who have been here for a while sets the tone for that. They’re demanding of holding their teammates accountable to play both ends and to execute what we’re trying to do as a team. It’s a top reason. And they go out and do it themselves. The leadership of the team has really grown and is growing, so that’s a good sign.
“I don’t care what we get credit for or what you guys ride us about. I think we’re getting better and better slowly. It’s not maybe talk-worthy, but we’re getting better and figuring a lot of things out.”
Timberwolves turning a corner?
The Timberwolves are heading toward their second playoff appearance since 2004. While the hiring of Chris Finch was met with criticism because the job was never officially open and former GM Gersson Rosas did not interview a minority, Finch could be a Coach of the Year candidate.
Finally, the Timberwolves have harnessed years of lottery picks into a capable team, led by former No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, who has rebounded from the death of his mother from COVID-19 to have a sparkling season. Anthony Edwards, another former top pick, along with D’Angelo Russell and Patrick Beverley, have given the team a much-needed edge.
The Timberwolves now come into games with a legitimate chance to win. For years, the franchise endured a series of unsuccessful rebuilds around younger players and free agents.
“It’s something we talked about at the very beginning, the very first day of getting together,” Finch said. “We want to expect to win, not because we just show up and we have enough talent but because we put the work in. We’ve been through high and lows of the season like everybody else. But this year we’ve put together enough patches of really good basketball against really good teams that our guys know and have for a long time believe they were a good team. Even when we were going through some downturns early in the season, I never felt that our team didn’t feel like they thought they weren’t a good team.”
The Timberwolves’ chemistry and toughness have been in question since Jimmy Butler ran through and then out of Minnesota, claiming Towns didn’t have enough desire to win. Beverley and other veterans have brought a grit the team lacked, while Towns has played with a passion expected since he was tabbed as a franchise cornerstone.
“This team really, really likes playing with each other and have each other’s back,” Finch said. “We’ve been able to get production from guys all the way through our lineup. When that happens, you don’t feel so exposed on any given night, so as a coach I feel oftentimes we have an answer for whatever we need to get through a game. It’s been fun to watch that maturation.”
Jayson Tatum picked up his 13th technical foul of the season in Wednesday’s loss to the Heat. If he picks up three more in the next two games, he would be ineligible to play the season finale at Memphis. While that is unlikely, one player who needs to watch himself over the season’s final week is Luka Doncic, who entered Friday’s play with 15 technicals. While Doncic is a fan favorite and one of the league’s most popular players, he is a complainer to the officials. Tatum will not have to worry about technical fouls in the playoffs because the number resets to zero. Coaches also face technical foul restrictions, but Boston’s Ime Udoka is safe with seven. Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff and Golden State’s Steve Kerr lead all coaches with 10 each … There are some unhappy folks in Utah, which has struggled of late and blew a 25-point lead this past week against the Clippers. After a recent blowout loss to the Celtics, Jazz center Rudy Gobert said his team doesn’t defend enough and lacks toughness. That may have been a shot at teammate Donovan Mitchell. The two have had a troubled relationship since Gobert was lackadaisical at the beginning of the pandemic and possibly infected Mitchell in March 2020. And while the Jazz are considered a team that rains 3-pointers with Mitchell as the central figure, Gobert is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and feels the Jazz should be more defensive-minded. This is a pivotal postseason for the Jazz, considering they are a prime candidate to be bounced from the first round, and major changes could be coming. Utah’s issue is its core is signed beyond next season. Mitchell and Gobert are signed through 2025-26, so there would likely have to be a trade to break them up. Mitchell would have the most value on the market because of his age (25) and potential as a franchise cornerstone. Gobert’s value is considerable, but the Clippers proved in last year’s playoff series that he is vulnerable against smaller lineups that can shoot 3-pointers. The Jazz have tried to emerge as a Finals contender and were the No. 1 seed last season before losing to the Clippers (who were without Kawhi Leonard). Their chances of reaching the Finals this season appear slim.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.