Analysis: What to watch for as the Lakers shoot for the postseason

first_img Trail Blazers, Grizzlies advance to NBA play-in game; Suns, Spurs see playoff dreams dashed Newsroom GuidelinesNews TipsContact UsReport an Error AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREUCLA alum Kenny Clark signs four-year contract extension with Packers“This league is too tough to do it by yourself, so we feel confident,” Coach Luke Walton said. “We believe in the guys that we have and it’s going to take a full group effort in this final stretch.”With one of the toughest remaining schedules and still three games behind the eighth-place Clippers for the final playoff berth in the West, the Lakers will need a healthy LeBron James in his so-called Zero Dark Thirty-23 Mode, but they’ll need more to break their way:FINDING CHEMISTRYAt this point, it’s no longer a secret: The trade deadline rocked the locker room. Some players have acknowledged that it was hard to avoid the rumor-mongering going on around a potential deal for Anthony Davis, and frankly, those rumblings will return when the offseason hits. The only player who never had to worry about being dealt was James.It hasn’t exactly been a smooth transition even out of the deadline, with team president Magic Johnson jetting into Philadelphia to ask players to keep a stiff upper lip about the situation, followed by two losses before the All-Star break. As the Lakers left Atlanta, they said they needed some time to themselves.What is going to bring a group like that together? James was asked Wednesday if there would be a message to deliver to the team: “We don’t have a choice.” How athletes protesting the national anthem has evolved over 17 years Trail Blazers beat Grizzlies in play-in, earn first-round series with the Lakers It’s another less-than-inspiring message in one sense, but he’s right. No one is getting dealt until after the season is over. The only likely change is whoever the Lakers pick up with their open roster spot.Even though the Lakers have a somewhat volatile mix of young players who now understand they can be trade assets and one-year veterans who might walk in the offseason, it doesn’t help either of those groups to miss the playoffs. Younger players who wish to remain in Los Angeles can prove their value by being a part of a winning team. Veterans on one-year contracts are fighting for a spot next year, and winning is the ultimate job security.There have been some bruised egos in the Lakers’ locker room in the last month, but ultimately the only way each individual can help himself is by helping each other reach the playoffs. Even if that’s a forced chemistry, it’s a chemistry around which the Lakers can build.“I think we’re ready,” Josh Hart said of Wednesday’s practice. “No one has their head down. No one is regretting anything. We’re all moving forward to make a push for this playoff, and we think it’s something that we’re able to do.”RE-ESTABLISHING DEFENSIVE IDENTITYFor much of the season, the Lakers have been a top-10 defensive team, but for much of the last month, they haven’t looked like it.In their last 10 games, the Lakers have had a defensive rating of 118.1, the fifth-worst in the league. It’s coincided with a challenging stretch, including multiple games against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Golden State Warriors, as well as the absence of Lonzo Ball, who typically would pick up the opposing point guard full court.But the biggest thing Walton would like to see improve on that end is attention to detail. The Lakers’ last two losses involved a number of possessions when players mixed up assignments or didn’t switch or lost track of their man. It’s natural, Walton said, to see some focus trail off over the course of the season, but the All-Star break is meant to reclaim some of that energy.“We had some slippage in our foundation, our fundamentals of how we play defense, and I think all of it caught up to us,” he said. “So it’s good that the break came when it did and now we gotta be much sharper for these last 25.”Ball getting healthy would go a long way toward helping: The Lakers’ defensive rating improves (108.9 to 105.3) when he’s on the court, and while Rajon Rondo has replaced him in spots as a starter, he lacks Ball’s size to guard bigger players. Upcoming games will pit the Lakers against guards such as Memphis’ Mike Conley and Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe – Ball’s swift return could help those matchups.The other key piece on defense the Lakers could use regularly is veteran center Tyson Chandler, who at 36 is starting to feel bumps and bruises harder than he used to. He stayed in Los Angeles during the All-Star Break to get more treatment. When healthy, he’s been a difference-maker: The Lakers allow just 101.3 points per 100 possessions when Chandler plays center.STABILIZING ON OFFENSEMuch has been made of the Lakers’ 3-point shooting, which at 33.9 percent ranks 26th in the NBA. Even though the league is as 3-point-oriented as ever, it’s not hard to find teams that have shot as poorly from deep as the Lakers and still made the playoffs: Both the Celtics and Heat won 48 games in 2015-16 shooting below 34 percent from 3-point range.But the Lakers don’t plan to stay in that zone: Signing Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala is a commitment to getting better on outside shooting. If either of those players can make good on their promise as deep threats, that should help a Lakers offense that has sunk to the bottom 10 in the league (107.4 off rating) after opening the season as one of the NBA’s most explosive scoring teams. It would also help if some of the Lakers who are under 35 percent at the moment (Hart, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma) could get back closer to their shooting numbers from last season.However, that might not even be the most serious problem undermining the offense: Injuries have caused upheaval everywhere, but most tellingly the Lakers have struggled to find their focal points with so many of the ball-handlers and playmakers missing games. If the trio of James, Rondo and Ball can all get healthy at once, it will go a long way to stabilizing the playing rotation.CRUCIAL STRETCHESThere are 12 road games left in the season, but there’s only one truly grinding trip left: In March, the Lakers have a five-game stretch that includes Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, New York and Milwaukee. Two of those games will be truly challenging, but if the Lakers can knock off the Bulls and the Knicks, two draft lottery-bound teams, that gives them a chance to end the trip with a winning record.Related Articlescenter_img Lakers practice early hoping to answer all questions The LeBron James playoff kick? It’s a real thing.In the 34-year-old’s career splits, there’s a noticeable difference from his play in October to his play in April: Scoring gradually goes up, usage goes up, minutes go up, even his shooting gets a little better.So when James promised Wednesday after Lakers practice that it would be “a little different” for him to close out the regular season, he’s earned some legitimacy to that vow.But the story of the Lakers’ (28-29) shortcomings to this point are not about one man: Even though James’ injury in December led to a 6-11 stretch that derailed the team’s initial hopes of being a higher-seeded team in the Western Conference, it’s not the only thing that ails them. Other than that, the Lakers at least have home-court advantage against a number of contenders coming through Staples Center: Houston, Boston, Denver, Golden State, Utah and Portland. They’ll have a chance to win a tiebreaker in a home game against Sacramento on March 24, which could actually be critical as long as the Kings, who are currently two games ahead in the standings, remain competitive in the playoff race.The Lakers could use some shoring up at home: They’re just 17-12 at Staples Center this season (including a “road win” over the Clippers). Only Memphis and Phoenix have fewer home wins in the West. Establishing Staples Center as a tough place to win would be a boon to the Lakers’ playoff chances.With everything that has to come together for the Lakers to beat the odds, one could understand the team feeling a considerable amount of pressure to make it happen. James, for one, seemed to think that didn’t matter.“Pressure? I don’t know what pressure is,” he said. “You go out there and do your job, and live with the results.” Lakers, Clippers schedules set for first round of NBA playoffs last_img