LeBron James and the Lakers' slide down NBA standings continues
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
The Los Angeles Lakers' precipitous slide continues.
They once again have the same record as the seventh-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, which means the once inconceivable has become an increasing possibility as the sand trickles through the hourglass.
There's a real chance the defending champions could miss the playoffs.
The Lakers have just more than a handful of games to claw themselves out of the play-in tournament hole, in which the seventh through 10th seeds must fight for their playoff lives.
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Making things even trickier, they play the Blazers on Friday night in the second leg of a back-to-back. When they do, they'll have one hand tied behind their back without LeBron James, who will miss his third straight game because of a sprained right ankle following his brief comeback from a 20-game absence due to the same injury.
Things haven't been going the Lakers' way for quite a while.
Before playing the Clippers, they spent two days trying to figure out how they were going to compensate for the absence of three of their ball handlers in James, Dennis Schroder (health and safety protocols) and Talen Horton-Tucker (calf strain).
Before the game, Lakers coach Frank Vogel joked that if something happened to their lone point guard, Alex Caruso, Vogel might have to throw a jersey on assistant coach Jason Kidd. He kidded that he might even talk to Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka about signing a reporter.
The plan, of course, was to go through Anthony Davis — over and over again. But after playing only nine minutes, Davis missed a jumper and then backpedaled into the scorer's table, tweaking his right ankle. Davis later said his ankle was "fine," adding that back spasms kept him out of the rest of the game.
He plans to play Friday, especially with the stakes so high.
"Tomorrow is probably the biggest game up through these games," said Davis, who had four points on 2-for-9 shooting Thursday. "Guys are still optimistic, and we're still fighting, and guys' spirits are still high."
That seemed somewhat true.
Losing seven of the past nine games has clearly taken a toll on the team's morale. Davis is still trying to find his rhythm following a 30-game absence because of a right calf strain and tendinosis. Schroder could miss the rest of the regular season. After James' second game back from the longest absence of his career on Sunday, he acknowledged his ankle is still ailing him.
It has been mentally exhausting for the Lakers.
"I don't know if we've got juju issues around here or something," said Kyle Kuzma, who had a team-high 25 points, five rebounds and four assists against the Clippers. "Every game, it's something different."
The Clippers outshot the Lakers from the field, 53.2% to 37.9%. Seven Clippers scored in double figures, while only two Lakers (Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell) did.
The Lakers obviously want to avoid the play-in tournament, but getting James' health back up to par is their main priority. If they're healthy, their confidence is unflappable.
After all, after spending nearly 100 days together in the NBA bubble, they know they have chemistry. After winning a championship during a whirlwind season that included extreme grief with the death of Kobe Bryant, deep uncertainty amid the COVID-19 pandemic and unbridled anger following the deaths of multiple Black men and women at the hands of police, they know they can overcome adversity.
The one thing they can't do: Fix James' ankle.
They're willing to risk slipping in the standings and playing in elimination games to give James' ankle more time to heal. If he's good to go, they believe they will be, too.
Said Davis: "When we're 100 percent healthy, we are the top team in the league."
Added Markieff Morris: "If we're healthy, s---, I would want to avoid us if I was the top two teams."
The question is whether that can happen.
Will the Lakers' gamble with their seeding pay off? If they slip into the play-in tournament, will James' ankle be healthy enough to prevent the Lakers from being eliminated? How long will it take Schroder to get his wind back? Will Davis' body hold up?
No one knows the answer to those questions, least of all the Lakers themselves.
When asked if he's confident the Lakers can be healthy enough when it counts, Morris was honest.
"I'm not sure," he said.
It's something the rest of the league will be following closely. If the answer is no, well, the Lakers will stun the league two seasons in a row.
But this time around, it will be for all the wrong reasons.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.