When LeBron James went down with an injury in late February, it all but spelled disaster for a Los Angeles Lakers team that was 29-32 at the time. However, in James' absence, the Lakers have managed to go 8-5, and have reached the .500 mark for the first time this season following a 116-111 nail-biting win over the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder Friday night. That's a huge accomplishment for a team that started the season 2-10.
All of a sudden, the Lakers now sit in a tie for seventh place with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and are just 1.5 games back of the Golden State Warriors for the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference. Since the All-Star break, the Lakers have been playing with a renewed sense of energy, and it has resulted in a Lakers team that looks far different than the one we saw earlier this season that struggled to find consistency on offense.
After the game, coach Darvin Ham spoke about how the Lakers have been able to climb out of the hole they had dug for themselves.
"Now it's time instead of constantly facing a deficit we get to try to create a surplus, create a cushion between the wins and losses," Ham said. "Guys are excited about that, but they know what's at stake."
Part of this recent success is due to the Lakers trade deadline acquisitions of players like Jarred Vanderbilt who gives the team a versatile wing defender, as well as Malik Beasley who adds shooting depth to a roster that sorely has needed it from the start of this season. But in Friday night's win, it was Dennis Schroder and Lonnie Walker IV who provided the offensive punch the Lakers needed to outlast the Thunder. The pair combined for 41 points in addition to the 37 points and 14 rebounds that Anthony Davis provided.
Davis' return has been at the center of why the Lakers have managed to stay afloat without James in the lineup. Since James went out, Davis is averaging 26.3 points, 12.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 54.3% from the field and 35.7% from deep. He's looking like the dominant presence he was at the start of the season when he was garnering some MVP buzz prior to getting injured.
As much of a weight has been lifted off of the team's shoulders by finally breaking even on the season, as Ham pointed out after the game, that moment can be fleeting in a Western Conference where one loss can send a team tumbling down the standings. With eight games left, and James' murky return timeline, the Lakers still have a lot of work to do before they can really think about seeing the season extend through mid-April. Seven of L.A.'s remaining games are against opponents who are also fighting for playoff positioning, so none of these upcoming matchups are going to be easy. And with James' status still up in the air, and D'Angelo Russell also still sidelined, the Lakers will need more performances like the ones they got out of Schroder and Walker Friday night if they want to punch their ticket to the postseason.