Top basketball pundit Kenny Smith has warned that the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers are in danger of missing the NBA playoffs.
Anthony Davis left Thursday night’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers early on due to injury, later confirmed as back spasms, and LeBron James is set to miss more games as he works through discomfort in the ankle that kept him out for six weeks until a two-game return that saw home defeats to Toronto and Sacramento over the weekend.
And TNT analyst Smith believes that relying on their star pairing to just “show up” on command for a potential NBA play-in game could spell disaster for the franchise’s hopes of defending the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The Lakers have an identical record to the Portland Trail Blazers ahead of Friday night’s clash at Moda Center between both teams and sit ahead of them in the final automatic seeding position by virtue of having a better record against fellow Western Conference teams. Portland are 18-18 in intra-conference matchups, while Lakers are 22-16 against their fellow teams from the West.
Given the circumstances, and how close we are to the end of the regular season, this feels like a big game for both teams. Portland takes on Los Angeles looking to end its six-game home skid but are .500 over the last 10 games whereas the Lakers, disrupted by injuries, are 3-7.
Smith feels that the current poor form and disrupted momentum, could have a potentially catastrophic impact for Frank Vogel’s team.
He said: “It’s very important, the Lakers’ health. I know that there are guys who say, ‘well, they can turn it on’. ‘LeBron James can turn it on’ or ‘Anthony Davis, together (they) can turn it on’, but I’m not a believer in that.
“I’m a believer in continuity. I’m a believer in chemistry. I’m a believer in confidence for guys who are (role players) because there’s a build-up to confidence and there is a build-up to winning. Then there’s an ability to coach winning plays and say, ‘Well, no, this is what we’re doing now with Montrezl’. ‘This is what we’re doing now with Gasol in a game’. ‘This is what we’re going to do now with different guys in the game’ and these are your roles, because everyone can’t just step in.
“So, for me, the health is super important. I really believe that they have a chance to not be in the playoffs and to be losing the play-in games, if they’re limping in the way they’re doing now.”
Live NBA: LA Lakers @ Portland 07.05
Saturday 8th May 3:00am
James criticised the play-in format recently and said the person responsible for the idea of the play-in tournament “needs to be fired”.
The new format being implemented this year means that being the seventh seed doesn’t guarantee a team a first-round playoff series. Instead, the NBA will hold a play-in tournament in which the number 7 and 8 teams face off and teams seeded numbers 9 and 10 will also play.
The winner of the game between the seventh and eighth seed in each conference will earn the number 7 seed, while the loser will then host the winner 9/10 seed clash in a play-in game, with the winner of that game in each conference earning the number 8 seed.
It seems there are two potential routes the Lakers could take as we head towards the final week of regular season action: they could protect their best players and ensure they’re at the best possible level of health when it comes to crunch time, or they could make sure and put the strongest team on the floor every night.
Smith’s TNT partner Charles Barkley agrees, though, that it would be folly to rely on Davis and James to operate at full capacity in what would be a one-off play-in game, should the Lakers finish outside the top six in the West.
Barkley said: “I don’t think you can just show up. Because those other teams, they are going to be ready. The notion that LeBron and AD could miss all this time and show up in a must-win game situation, to me, that’s a very difficult task.
“They can play the Warriors, they can play the Blazers, they can play the Mavs. Even New Orleans – to me, the team that underachieved the most – but the notion that the Lakers can just show up and beat New Orleans, Dallas, or Portland. I don’t like their chances.”
Smith compared the play-in games to the similar format of March Madness when the college basketball season gets condensed into winner-takes-all matches.
“(It could be that) somebody just gets hot. Like we see that (when) we do NCAA basketball in March. And we see how that that play-in situation is, it’s fluid.”
If it ends up Portland and the Lakers involved in a play-in game then Friday night will provide a dress rehearsal of sorts – although some of the main cast members are likely to be missing.
It was reported on Thursday that James is likely to miss the rest of this week’s games but should return next week.
Davis spoke after the game on Thursday and confirmed he is hopeful of playing against the Trail Blazers on Friday.
“(My) ankle is fine, wasn’t bothering me. My back locked up pretty bad but it’s better now. I should be good to go. I may still wake up and test it out but my plan is to go (against the Blazers).”
The Lakers are also without Talen Horton-Tucker (calf), Jared Dudley out (knee) and Dennis Schroder (calf) for the game, while the Blazers have day-to-day concerns over Norman Powell (knee) and Zach Collins out for season with an ankle injury.