Old foes meet in play-in battle

Lakers' long road to retaining NBA title begins with home clash against the Warriors

LOS ANGELES • Tomorrow will be just like old times, a LeBron James-led team doing battle with the Golden State Warriors.

Except this time, they are not fighting for the National Basketball Association (NBA) championship, as was the case from 2015-18.

Instead, both teams will be scrapping to reach the play-offs, with the league instituting a maiden play-in tournament for the seventh to 10th best teams in the Western and Eastern Conferences to determine the final four seeds.

Los Angeles defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 110-98 in the regular-season finale on Sunday but their fifth straight victory was not enough for the defending champions, who finished seventh with a 42-30 record, to avoid the first of potentially two one-off games.

James scored a game-high 25 points but left the game midway through the fourth quarter, slightly favouring the injured right ankle that sidelined him 26 games down the stretch.

The Lakers are in this position due to his long absence, coupled with a two-month injury layoff for fellow All-Star Anthony Davis, who had 14 points on the night.

Whether it was with the Cavaliers or Miami Heat, a James-led team have never entered the play-offs seeded lower than No. 4 in his previous 14 appearances.

However, the reigning Finals Most Valuable Player believes there are mitigating factors for their overall poor form.

"I don't look at our seeding. It doesn't matter. Obviously, we know we wanted to play a lot better this season, but the injuries took a toll on our team," James, who shrugged off his ankle tweak as "fine", said.

"But I look forward to the challenge. It's another challenge for me in the post-season. I'm looking forward to it. We're finally starting to get whole, starting to feel a little bit better about our situation.

"I'll be in the line-up on Wednesday. The time is now and I'm ready for it."

If the Lakers are to repeat as champions - an 18th title will surpass the Boston Celtics for the most all time - it will be unprecedented. The Houston Rockets are the lowest-seeded team to win the championship, entering the 1995 play-offs as the sixth seed.

New Orleans Pelicans centre Willy Hernangomez being fouled by the Lakers' LeBron James at the Smoothie King Centre on Sunday. James had a game-high 25 points in their 110-98 win but they could not avoid the play-in.
New Orleans Pelicans centre Willy Hernangomez being fouled by the Lakers' LeBron James at the Smoothie King Centre on Sunday. James had a game-high 25 points in their 110-98 win but they could not avoid the play-in. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Lakers need to first get past the Warriors at home. And failing that, another game against the winner of the clash between the ninth seed Memphis Grizzlies and 10th seed San Antonio Spurs awaits.

"It will be the hardest challenge any team has ever had in NBA history," Lakers reserve forward Jared Dudley said.

"We're up for it. We're the defending champs. They've (the other teams) got to worry about us.

"We're getting healthy at the right time, and no one wants to see a healthy Laker team."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2021, with the headline 'Old foes meet in play-in battle'. Subscribe