Lakers Play-In Bound

Updated: January 20, 2022
bron & brodie

The Indiana Pacers are one of the few franchises brave enough to openly identify as a seller this season going into the trade deadline. A team that has always prided itself on overachieving came into the year ravaged with injuries has now placed everything on the lawn for a garage sale in hope of excess value from thirsty contenders. To add insult to injury, their shot-blocking 7-footer, Miles Turner (who has been the most sought-after trade asset), is out with a stress reaction to his left foot and his health will be re-evaluated in a couple of weeks. All this, and Indiana walked into Los Angeles with a 3 & 17 record on the road, second-worst only to the miserable Detroit Pistons. Their point guard and primary facilitator Malcolm Brogdon is still injured, and it feels like T.J Warren retired after the brief Jordan comps in the Disney Bubble two seasons back.

With all the hype around on how well King James has played as of late, even MVP whispers and 1st team All-NBA ransoms and demands, one would assume handling the Pacers at home would be light work for royalty. For a franchise on the cusp of a playoff invitation, it is games like these that are simply must-wins after a slow start to the season. Going into the 4th quarter with the lead and momentum, it looked as if the Lakers would take care of business. After a huge win against the Utah Jazz, the Lebron Stans and those still desperately clinging to their Lakers’ stock had hoped it was a statement win with bigger implications. But instead, as the wheels came off yet again against Indiana in Staples, it appears the W in LA against Utah was nothing more than a periodic fluke that occurs naturally throughout the marathon of a season.

Even after Sabonis landed on Westbrook’s signature shoe and rolled his ankle…hobbled for the rest of the game…the Lakers simply had no answer for Caris LeVert. And really, how could they? In the last two seasons, the LA front office has traded away or let walk every plus-perimeter defender they had despite winning a title as a defense-first franchise. With 30 points on 12 of 16 shooting and 8 boards, LA was making LeVert look like a perennial All-Star. Before the ankle injury, Sabonis put up a clean 20/12, & 10 triple-double, showing what he would’ve been doing in his young OKC days if not instructed to feed rebounds to Russ.

Lakers’ 4th quarters are becoming one of the hottest commodities around the league since even when matched up against the tanking franchises at the bottom, there simply is no guarantee of the outcome. They are hard to define, but in all sports, there are certain attributes, attitudes, intangibles, that title teams possess. Taking L’s at home from players publicly put on the trade block for a rebuild simply isn’t the makings of a contender. Now situated in the 8th seed tied with KAT, DLO, and young Anthony Edwards, with a sub-500 22 & 23 record, is it now safe to say, that LA is play-in bound?

It is the Denver Nuggets at 6, who are still in striking distance for the Lakers to avoid the play-in and the taxing extra short round prequel to the playoffs. Yet, last year’s MVP Nikola Jokic has been carrying the 6th seed in the West on his own from the jump, with his two-man game guard Jamal Murry out since last season. Michael Porter Jr. was scheduled to soak up the shooting load in his absence and yet instead, his back has placed him back on the bench watching from the sidelines. But unlike Los Angeles, who so frequently allow bottom feeder teams to steal wins from them at home, the Joker and the Nuggets handle their business in their high elevation.

There is another difference though, between these two franchises and their opponents’ approach to the matchups. Despite Jokic being the reigning MVP from last season, it is hard to imagine that opposing young players get up for him the same way they do for Bron. A new generation of young high-end talent has entered the league and is fully establishing themselves and their place in the power dynamic of the NBA. They grew up on Lebron James highlight tapes (well, YouTube clips since most of them have never held a VHS). Although the Lakers have been pure trash for much of the season, every young and up-and-coming star comes to Staples for the blood of the chosen one. Until Lebron James finally falls off a cliff and can no longer elevate in transition, poster jams at his expense will always carry value in a way that baptizing the Joker simply doesn’t have.

There is a 2nd layer to this though, and it comes with the Westbrook variable in the equation. Not him personally, but the fact that Lebron and the Lakers chose to use the last assets they had to sell on Russ and his 44-million-dollar contract. When Caris LeVert walks into Los Angeles, DeMar DeRozan, Buddy Hield, and countless other guards and wings who now view themselves the superior talent to Westbrook and at a significantly discounted price, they take it personally…last dance style. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be saved from their situation and head to LA for a title run? Now every time a tier-two guard walks into LA or hosts the Lakers at home, the LeVerts of the world put on a show. It is a subtle performance, one not openly talked about in the post-game press conference, but it’s there and it’s waiting every time Lebron and Westbrook take the court.

The Joker has been playing with house money all year, especially after the back injury and season-ending surgery to Michael Porter Jr. King James on the other hand has been on an uphill climb from the preseason ever since they were demolished by Golden State and Sacramento. And unlike most teams that get freebees a few times a month, every team, and every tier-two guard, gets up for Bron and the shade that he indirectly cast upon their value.

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