At this point, the best-case scenario for the Los Angeles Lakers is to earn the No. 6 seed — an outcome that Frank Vogel admitted “looks unlikely” on Sunday, and remains so after the team’s LeBron James- and Anthony Davis-less win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday.
Kuzma absolutely bails out anyone who had the Lakers ML tonight 😳
Lakers ML -440 💰 https://t.co/zTyymTWJ7r
— ClutchPoints Betting (@CPBetting) May 13, 2021
Wes Matthews' game-clinching steal pic.twitter.com/0cUxxCfZRK
— michael corvo (@_michaelcorvo_) May 13, 2021
The Lakers (40-30) now sit one game behind the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks (41-29), but without either tiebreaker. L.A. will need to finish 2-0 (against a friendly schedule), and hope either Portland or Dallas goes winless in order to dodge the play-in. That’s not implausible, but it’s far from probable.
Lakers move closer to play-in
LA needs Blazers to drop final 2 games (@ Phx Thurs, vs. Den Sun), & Lakers need to beat Hou tonight then sweep B2B @ Pacers & Pelicans.
Lakers could overtake Dallas if Mavs lose their last 2 games. Mavs face Raptors and TWolves, so… https://t.co/J3uEiJWbNr
— michael corvo (@_michaelcorvo_) May 13, 2021
All three bottom seeds are still in play for the Lakers. A play-in loss to Golden State would require L.A. to beat the 9-vs. 10 winner to secure the No. 8 spot. Across the possible scenarios, the pool of potential first-round opponents for L.A. includes any of the West’s current top-4 seeds. (Entering Thursday, the Denver Nuggets trail the Los Angeles Clippers by one game for the No. 3 seed.)
For their part, the Lakers don’t seem too worried about the opponent, as long as they’re fully healthy.
“No matter where we fall, we know that we’re capable of still winning a championship,” Anthony Davis said. “Injuries played a part for us this season but we always say: it just makes it a lot sweeter at the end, to go through something like this. I’d put us up against anyone. I don’t think no one wants to see in the first round. I know the type of team that we have and I know what we can do. I think we’re capable of beating anyone in a seven-game series.”
Fair enough. When the Lakers are at their best, they should beat anybody in the league. But reaching that level a) remains hard to envision with their chemistry and availability issues, and b) doesn’t mean there aren’t more and less desirable matchups for the defending champions.
Let’s run through the Lakers’ possible opening-round opponents, by whom they should want to face.
1) Denver Nuggets (currently: No. 4 seed, 45-24)
Season series: 2-1 Lakers
Denver has impressed since Jamal Murray’s devastating season-ending knee injury. MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic and emerging star Michael Porter Jr. have led the Nuggets to an 11-4 record and 5.7 net rating — sixth-best in hoops.
However, the Lakers know how to handle Denver. In the bubble, they needed five games to dispatch them in the Western Conference Finals. In the first meeting this season, on Feb. 4, a full-strength Lakers steamrolled to 114-93 win. 10 days later, the Lakers lost to Denver, but Anthony Davis exited after 14 minutes.
In their most recent matchup, last Monday, the Lakers used the Nuggets to find their groove. Denver entered downtown L.A. as winners of five straight, but L.A. successfully stifled Michael Malone’s group. L.A. held the Nuggets to 89 points, while Davis had his first All-Star-caliber showing post-calf strain.
Marc Gasol — a recent sparkplug for the Lakers — plays Jokic as well as anybody, and the Lakers are better off with him on the court, in general.
Porter Jr. has been averaging a ridiculous 25.4 points per game since Murray’s torn ACL, but the combination of Playoff LeBron, Kyle Kuzma (a much-improved defender), and AD (when necessary) can fluster the 22-year-old.
On the flip side, I don’t see the Nuggets wing defenders being capable of containing a humming Lakers group. Lakers in five.
2) Phoenix Suns (currently: No. 2 seed, 48-21)
Season series: 1-1
The Suns have played great ball all year, but they have no answer for Davis.
This was on full display on Sunday night, as Davis roasted DeAndre Ayton, Frank Kaminsky (LOL), Jae Crowder, and anyone else Phoenix threw at him. He dominated on both ends, fueling the Lakers’ surprisingly comfortable wire-to-wire win.
AD reverse jam that put the dagger in the Suns 🙌https://t.co/DKRXRbYH3H
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) May 10, 2021
Ayton aspires to be a long-term defensive anchor of a contender, but he’s not there yet. He’s 10th in Defensive Win Shares, but in terms of defensive box plus-minus, he’s about equal to Kevin Huerter and Pat Connaughton. The Suns defend the paint with middling success and rank 25th in blocks per game.
Phoenix took the first two games of the season series, both sans AD. Obviously, Chris Paul and Devin Booker pose problems, but the Lakers perimeter defense has become a strength.
Frank Vogel said Kentavious Caldwell-Pope deserves the same All-Defense consideration as Alex Caruso. "Those two guys do it all."
— michael corvo (@_michaelcorvo_) May 12, 2021
Lakers fans should feel optimistic about this matchup. Lakers in six.
3) Utah Jazz (currently: No. 1 seed, 50-19)
Season Series: 2-1 Utah
Here’s what Markieff Morris said in February after the Jazz blew out a worn-down Lakers group in Salt Lake City:
“We see the Jazz, we know they beat our ass tonight,” he said. “But in the playoffs, it’s a different story.”
Rudy Gobert will cause problems inside, but he’s going to struggle when the Lakers put AD at the five. The Lakers can also use Gasol to pull him away from the rim.
Furthermore, Utah’s bread-and-butter is shooting threes, and the Lakers are amongst the best in basketball at defending the arc.
As an exceptionally well-coached top seed with three All-Stars, two Sixth Man of the Year candidates, the NBA’s best home record and net rating (by far), Utah has to be taken seriously. However, the Lakers don’t fear the Jazz, and whether they respect them at all is up for debate.
Also: Royce O’Neale on LeBron? Lakers in six.
4) Los Angeles Clippers (currently: No. 3 seed, 46-23)
Season Series: 3-0 Clippers
For a host of reasons, this is the matchup the Lakers don’t want to see in the opening round, and the least of which may be the fact that the Clippers swept the season series. After all, LeBron missed two of those ballgames, while AD missed one and left another nine minutes in. The first meeting came way back on ring night.
The Clippers should get Serge Ibaka back for the playoffs, who can bang with Davis and make him work. The Clips have better large wing options to check LeBron — Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Nic Batum — than any team in the West.
Ty Lue knows LeBron as well as any opposing head coach, and Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins are intricately familiar with Vogel’s playbook.
This matchup will be tough for the Lakers at any juncture. But, because of James’ still-recovering health and the team’s work-in-progress state, the Lakers would prefer to face their Staples Center co-tenants as late as possible.
As with the Jazz matchup, the Lakers’ three-point defense might come in handy against the NBA’s leading team in three-point percentage.
But, Kawhi Leonard? Paul George? Playoff Rondo? Exhausting L.A vs. L.A. storylines?
Am I Basketball Jonesing for that ASAP? Absolutely.
Are the Lakers? Absolutely not. This goes seven.