LOS ANGELES — There was no denial, no hope, no fury, no sadness. The Los Angeles Lakers, beset by injuries and slipping further down the Western Conference standings by the day, have accepted their fate.
The major projection models now give the Lakers less than a 1 percent chance to make the postseason; the eye test gives them no chance. This is a lottery team, and the Lakers know it.
“You keep playing to the end and see what happens,” James said flatly. “Everyone has been talking about the postseason, but we need to worry about each and every game and how we can get better with our team. At the end of the year, the chips will fall where they may.”
Already reeling after an inexcusable loss to the Phoenix Suns on Saturday, the Lakers lost Brandon Ingram to shoulder soreness Monday morning and Kyle Kuzma to an ankle injury Monday night. With Lonzo Ball and Lance Stephenson already in street clothes, the depleted Lakers stumbled to the finish line against the deeper and more cohesive Clippers.
“The injuries are taking a toll on us,” James said. “I haven’t been a part of a season with this many injuries to all of our key guys. Big, big key guys. That’s just the way this season has been. … We prided ourselves on our depth at the start of the season, but obviously our depth has dwindled over the course of the last few weeks.”
Barring a miracle, James, who made the Finals in each of the past eight seasons, will miss the postseason for the first time since 2004-05, his second season. The Lakers are on track to miss the playoffs for the sixth straight time, the longest drought in the franchise’s 71-year history.
James played 42 minutes Monday, just one off his season high, but the Lakers saw their best chance to reverse their late-season downward momentum disappear one bricked three-pointer at a time. Indeed, the league’s third-worst outside shooting team died as it had lived, shooting just 10 for 38 from beyond the arc and drawing scattered boos and chants of “We want Kobe!” from the Staples Center crowd.
Coach Luke Walton, facing rampant speculation about his job security, had no interest in gauging the playoff implications of Monday’s result or of the Lakers’ 22nd loss in their past 26 games against the Clippers.
“We’ve got too much work to do to start reflecting right now,” Walton said. “We should all love this game. We’re coming in tomorrow to get better because that’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s what we get paid to do.”
And then, as an afterthought: “We’re still not mathematically out of it.”
Walton’s forced optimism was entirely unconvincing, and he spent most of his postgame news conference stressing the importance of keeping a day-to-day approach. After opening the season sincerely telling everyone who would listen that he had “the best job in the league,” Walton sounds now like a man trying to make the most of his last days.
The Lakers’ resignation came through loud and clear when James was asked whether his minutes might be scaled back in the coming weeks. Rather than dismiss the notion, James allowed that he and Walton would “probably” have that conversation and that the Lakers would “see what makes more sense for me and for the team.”
As Clippers guard Patrick Beverley raised his arms triumphantly at the buzzer and loudly celebrated by calling his team “the best in LA,” James and the Lakers were left to ponder how the remaining five weeks of their season will play out. Twelve of the Lakers’ 18 remaining games are against playoff teams, and they depart on a five-game swing through the East next week. Walton said he expects Ingram back shortly, but Ball remains out and Kuzma probably will miss Wednesday’s contest against the Denver Nuggets.
The Lakers’ playoff aspirations were all but extinguished Monday, but there’s good cause to believe they have yet to hit rock bottom.
“I can speak for myself; I can’t speak for everybody else,” James said when asked how the Lakers would approach the stretch run. “I’ll continue to be a professional and be as great as you can be every single night, no matter the circumstances. Someone is always watching.”