Lakers have been unable to rise above Western Conference churn

It was just enough of a sniff of a dream to drive Lakers fans delirious after a season-and-a-half of struggle.

The last time the Lakers faced the Dallas Mavericks, they clinched arguably their best win of the regular season: a 27-point comeback, topping two All-Star starters in the same backcourt, and getting gutty fourth-quarter performances out of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. With a new cast around their stars, the Lakers’ roster finally just seemed to make sense, and even back in the standings at the time, there was a powerful swell of optimism that they could actually be the tough postseason out they once imagined.

It lasted all of one day.

Now they see the Mavericks (35-35) again, and while Dallas has sunk from the sunny territory of a guaranteed play-in spot, the Lakers (34-36) haven’t risen above the fray like they once hoped. With James on the shelf for likely another week (at minimum), they’re still caught in the Western Conference churn instead of ramping up into something resembling a contender.

Coach Darvin Ham’s frustration after falling to lowly Houston on Wednesday night reinforced how much pressure the Lakers are under, and how they’re still struggling to meet the vision of the team they want to be.

“(The Rockets) made us feel them in terms of them attacking the paint, them getting hits, them getting offensive rebounds, giving themselves extra possessions,” Ham said. “And we should have been the ones playing with that type of edge but so goes the NBA. You have your ups and downs, but there is no excuses. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you.”

There’s a lot of that going around, admittedly: As of Thursday morning, fourth-place Phoenix through 12th-place New Orleans were separated by just four games. In their past 10 games, the best record belongs to the Golden State Warriors (6-4) while the worst belongs to the Pelicans (3-7). Everyone else remains somewhere in the muddled middle, which has stubbornly refused to come unknotted.

Injury is a consistent theme up and down the standings race: The Lakers are without James, but Phoenix’s Kevin Durant, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and New Orleans’ Zion Williamson have been spotty or missed huge stretches. The Mavericks themselves have played several games without Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, but both stars practiced on Thursday, Coach Jason Kidd said.

While the Lakers expect Davis to play on Friday (the team has only one more back-to-back set to navigate with Utah and the Clippers on April 4 and 5), the shifting nature of the lineup has made the learning curve tougher to process. D’Angelo Russell said the Lakers’ loss to the Rockets was in part a reflection of how little time the team has had to work out new configurations.

“No LeBron, no A.D. and that’s what we’re kind of accustomed to and you got to adjust,” he said. “I think that’s the first time I’ve seen that lineup with no A.D., no LeBron. Obviously, it was the first time for me. It was a little weird, but you got to adjust.”

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The Lakers have been better of late: They have as many three-game winning streaks (two) since the trade deadline as before it. Even without James in the lineup, they’ve been the second-best defense (110.4 defensive rating) in the NBA, and they’ve had a plus-2.1 net rating, which is sixth-best in the West in the nine-game span.

But pressure can do funny things to teams, even hot ones. And it’s clear the Lakers are feeling some. They’re fortunate in that eight of their last 12 games will be played in the confines of Arena, but they’re not feeling any crutches – or room for error.

“We’re running out of time,” forward Jarred Vanderbilt said. “I mean I know we got 12 games left? We have no more freebies. We never had none to begin with. We need all these games. We need to win as much as possible, especially ones like tonight against teams that aren’t even fighting for playoff position – especially Western Conference teams. So we need to win those games.”


When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Arena

TV/Radio: Spectrum SportsNet, 710 AM

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