The Los Angeles Lakers were crushed by the Dallas Mavericks Tuesday night, 128–110. This was a bloodbath. Dallas scored 82 first-half points; Luka Doncic put up a triple-double in 29 minutes; Russell Westbrook finished a ghastly minus-25. The loss dropped the Lakers to a season-worst 13 games below .500. Worst of all, the Lakers woke up Wednesday morning in 11th place in the Western Conference, with just seven games left in the regular season. The Lakers now face the humiliation and ignominy, almost unthinkable for a team employing LeBron James, of failing to make even the conference play-in tournament.
Responsibility for denying the dysfunctional and disgraceful Lakers a wholly undeserved play-in berth now falls to the brave and heroic San Antonio Spurs, who currently hold the 10th seed and by dint of a far superior conference record own the all-important tie-breaker. The Spurs are not a very strong basketball team. But there will be no real comedic value in their missing the play-in, whereas if the Lakers miss out I will scream with laughter until my lungs shoot out of my mouth and splat wetly on the screen of my laptop. For this reason, the Spurs now represent everything that is pure and right in the universe. They simply must prevail. The Spurs, going back to the Tim Duncan era, have rooted themselves in the public imagination as the very exemplars of boring, untelegenic competence. The favored sizzle-but-no-steak Lakers getting bounced from the playoffs by a no-sizzle-and-also-no-steak Spurs team chugging along ho-hummedly in the unsexy stages of a rebuild is the most delightful of all outcomes.
But can this young Spurs team pull it off? Can they, on behalf of all humankind, force the Lakers to finish the regular season outside of a grotesquely inflated playoff pack, producing what would be by a wide margin the most catastrophically disappointing outcome for any Lakers season since at least 2005? My friends, they’ve got a shot. San Antonio is solidly middle-of-the-pack in offense and defense, and have a basically respectable minus-0.2 net rating on the season. FiveThirtyEight pegs their projected point differential at around minus-0.4 for the season, whereas it projects the Lakers for a sickening minus-3.1, ninth worst in the entire damn league. Neither team much deserves to continue playing basketball beyond the regular season, but the Spurs for sure come closer to deserving it.
Both teams are likely to lose their next games: San Antonio hosts the comprehensively superior Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday night, and the Lakers travel to Utah Thursday night. Friday morning, barring the unexpected, the Spurs and Lakers should find themselves once again in 10th and 11th, respectively. This is where the Spurs have the advantage. Due to another Portland scheduling quirk, San Antonio hosts the tanking Trail Blazers Friday night and then again Sunday. The Lakers, meanwhile, host the New Orleans Pelicans Friday night, and then the Denver Nuggets Sunday afternoon. The Pelicans are crud, but here it is important to note that the Lakers are winless (0–2) against New Orleans this season, with an average margin of defeat of 18 points. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis hobbled and the rest of Los Angeles’s roster a complete and total wreck, the Spurs are likely to open next week ahead of the Lakers and with a little bit of breathing room. Hell yes!
They’ll need the margin for error: Both teams finish the regular season with three of four games on the road. San Antonio travels to Denver and Minnesota, hosts the Warriors, and wraps their regular season in Dallas, against a Mavericks team that can land anywhere from third to seventh in the conference pecking order, and will very much still be fighting for playoff position. The Lakers go to Phoenix and Golden State, host the Thunder, and finish up at Denver, another team that will have the pedal jammed to the floor all the way to the end. It’s a stretch that presents some opportunities: The Warriors are foundering big time, and the Thunder are horrendous. At this point you can’t rule out the possibility that LeBron James will hammer-throw Malik Monk into the cheap seats during one of these games and earn an ill-timed suspension, but just to be safe, the Spurs probably will need to win at least two of their final four games in order to hold the Lakers off. It’ll be a tall order, but they can do it!
They will be helped tremendously if James and Davis can’t handle huge workloads down the stretch. LeBron has missed two of the Lakers’ last three games due to wear and tear. He turned his ankle painfully during Sunday’s loss to the Pelicans, then sat out Tuesday’s ass-whupping in Dallas. Chris Haynes reported Tuesday that James is likely to miss the game in Utah. Davis, meanwhile, hasn’t touched the floor since mid-February. His timeline is less certain, but Haynes reported that he could return during this weekend’s short home-stand, either against the Pelicans on Friday or against the Nuggets on Sunday. If LeBron and Davis return soon, and if they can go for big minutes, and if they can spend those big minutes playing at or near their absolute best, the Lakers could win any or all of their remaining games.
If, on the other hand, they cannot (which seems much more likely), the Lakers will need to rely on the awesome willpower of Russell Westbrook, and that is a real bad scene right now. The Lakers are 6–14 without LeBron in the lineup this season, but all six of the wins came with Davis on the floor. Westbrook is 0–4 in games played without both James and Davis this season, and given the state of Vogel’s rotations these days, you would not pick the Lakers to win any game that does not feature at least one of the team’s two good players. Russ’s vibes have gotten apocalyptically bad:
We stand together on the precipice of an incredible, historic downfall for one of the highest profile teams of the modern era. The play-in offers the Lakers a shameful lifeline, and could save them from having to confront the nightmare horror show they’ve made of the 2021–22 season. This must not be allowed! Many destinies are now controlled by Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Jakob Poetl, and the ancient but timeless Gregg Popovich. In the name of all that is good and holy, the Spurs must send the Lakers to hell, where they belong.