After the Lakers secured a crucial win over the top-seeded Phoenix Suns Sunday night to keep them a game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the sixth spot in the West, Anthony Davis spoke fondly of the late-season competition the Lakers have found themselves in of late.
"It's been fun, to be honest," Davis said after putting up 42 points in the win. "We were a great team last year, and this is the first time since I've been here that we ran into a challenge. This is a different challenge for us."
While this isn't a ringing endorsement of the play-in tournament that involves teams seeded Nos. 7-10 in both conferences to decide the final two playoff spots, at least Davis is enjoying the process of trying to avoid it. If the season ended today, the Lakers would be participating in the play-in tournament, a spot no one expected them to be in, but injuries to Davis and LeBron James -- who is expected to return this week -- have derailed their season. Now with four games left in the 2020-21 campaign, L.A. is trying to do everything in its power to get out of the seventh spot in the West.
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If this were any other season, the teams seeded below the Lakers would've waved the white flag a long time ago and these last couple weeks of games would've been meaningless, not just in this playoff race but across the league as well. But the implementation of the play-in was meant to heighten competition throughout the whole season, but specifically towards the end of the schedule where teams would typically rest their star players with nothing left to play for. So far, the new format has done its job as only six teams are eliminated from the playoff race with just one week of the regular season remaining.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel has also seen the benefit of these meaningful games over the past couple of weeks for his team.
"I think that's the silver lining that no one is really talking about right now is that the last couple weeks, the last two games, we've been playing really every-possession-matters-type of basketball, which is what the playoffs are like," Vogel said. "That's what playoff intensity is [all] about. And sometimes you have a playoff seeding locked up, and you kind of coast into it. You're not as sharp as you need to be going into the playoffs. But the urgency that we've been forced to play with, I think, has come out in Anthony's performance the last couple of games, and I think it's going to benefit our whole group."
If the Lakers go 4-0 over their final week of games, and the Blazers go 2-2, then L.A. would slide up to the sixth seed and avoid the play-in tournament. With James returning, and Davis playing at a high level recently, it's certainly possible to see the Lakers miraculously avoid the play-in after stumbling down the standings in the last month.