Lakers Redeem Cursed Season By Falling Backwards Into Playoffs
9:06 AM EDT on April 12, 2023
The Los Angeles Lakers—the same team that started the year 0-5, spent most of their season watching Russell Westbrook damage backboards, traded half their roster, endured injuries to all of their functional players, found themselves on both sides of the Patrick Beverley experience, had their season podalically resuscitated by the LeBron James of Feet, and surged their way into the play-in tournament with an essentially new team—have redeemed their disgusting season, made the playoffs, and booked a date with the hobbled Memphis Grizzlies.
Or rather, they were guided into the playoffs by the capitulatory Minnesota Timberwolves, who built a big lead then squandered it with 16 minutes of the worst basketball you will see until Summer League starts. The Western Conference's first play-in game matched the two most angst-ridden teams in the field against each other, and they both played ugly basketball until the Lakers basically won by accident. The Wolves collapsed, subjecting Minnesota fans to yet another heartbreak.
The Wolves had to go to L.A. without the suspended Rudy Gobert and injured Jaden McDaniels, who were out after punching Kyle Anderson and a wall, respectively. Absent their two best defenders, each of whom matches up directly with each of the Lakers' best offensive players, how could the Wolves get stops? Very easily, it turned out. The Lakers' whole thing is that they have those two players, and even as they surged to a 19-10 finish to the regular season, and even as Malik Beasley and D'Angelo Russell integrated into the rotation, the Lakers never played competent half-court offense. The ball neither moves nor has any place to move to, as the team's shooters have struggled to hit shots and space the floor. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kyle Anderson, and Anthony Edwards protected the rim, and LeBron James committed five rec-league turnovers. The Wolves played a drop, sending doubles at Davis when Towns was off the court and daring Russell (0-for-4 from three), Austin Reaves (1-for-5), and Troy Brown Jr. (0-for-3) to hit shots with defenders sprinting into tough closeouts.
Meanwhile, Minnesota, the one team determined to play modern NBA offense, shot the lights out for the first three quarters while Towns hunted and punished mismatches. L.A.'s gameplan was clearly to take Edwards out of the game by putting Jarred Vanderbilt on him and sending doubles early in possessions. They executed well, as Edwards shot 3-for-17 on the night and missed all nine of his threes. But the Wolves also smartly passed into space. They built a double-digit lead in the second quarter, lost it, then built an even bigger one in the third. Towns was the best player on the court through the middle quarters despite playing a mere eight games after returning from a four-month layoff. He protected the rim like a guy who cares about defense—a novelty—and he played with force on the other end. Towns can float through games like a glorified floor-spacer, though the Timberwolves' offense is at its best when Towns is in the action, destroying smaller defenders and keeping the ball moving.
As long as they kept James out of the open court (the only phase of offense the Lakers can score in consistently), it seemed like the Wolves would be fine. They held the Lakers to 19 fourth-quarter points, yet they were the opposite of fine. I should pause here and stress that this game was competitive and intense enough to be quite fun for the first 40 minutes. A lot of it was sloppy, but it was within the parameters of silliness to the point that the bad stuff, like Reaves's gangrenous arm or Jordan McLaughlin getting his shit stuffed over and over and over for no reason, was still fun.
Then the Timberwolves ran out of gas and spent the final 11 minutes of the fourth quarter unable to create shoots and unwilling to shoot. They had as many made shots in that period as they did shot-clock violations, and at least three of their misses came right at the end of pointless possessions. Mike Conley was the only one who could keep a reasonably level head and get past the first line of defense, and his efforts came to nothing. He shot all three of his team's free throws after the end of the first half, and while L.A. had 17 in that same time, the discrepancy says more about how sparingly the Wolves got into the lane than it does about the poor officiating. Anyway, a bunch of bad turnovers and worse decisions later, Dennis Schröder did this.
Then Anthony Davis immediately fouled Mike Conley on a three, and repaid the Wolves by giving them an undeserved shot at a win. Overtime hung over the game like a dense fart cloud.
The Lakers scored, and the Wolves didn't, and this game got the anticlimax it deserved, despite Conley stealing an inbounds pass down three with 19 seconds left. Minnesota will host whoever wins the Pelicans-Thunder play-in (with the added challenge of playing with Rudy Gobert), while the Lakers will head to Memphis for the Shannon Sharpe Bowl. That's a weird matchup for a lot of reasons, and I am so sorry to tell you that you are going to be experiencing potentially lethal doses of Dillon Brooks on your TV for the next three weeks.
There is a lot about this Lakers team that, in a vacuum, is admirable. It's cool when a team puts together a new roster on the fly and makes it work. I like when a defensively inclined head coach keeps his team playing hard through bad times. It's hard to root against a beloved superstar in his 20th season, fighting through an injury for the chance to make a playoff run. But we're not in a vacuum, so I hope Memphis wallops them like the Wolves couldn't.