For the first time since 2010, the Los Angeles Lakers are the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. At 51-15, the Lakers earned the top spot by defeating the Utah Jazz on Monday, 116-108 behind one of the best games of Anthony Davis' career. He finished the night with 42 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block while leading the Lakers on both sides of the ball to their last important regular-season victory. They can now coast through the remainder of their seeding games, playing only as hard as they feel is necessary to get ready for the playoffs.
The Jazz don't have quite as easy a road. After falling for the second consecutive time, Utah has fallen to fifth place in the Western Conference. They lead the Oklahoma City Thunder, who just defeated them, by only half of a game, and the Dallas Mavericks are looming with a 2.5 game deficit. The two of them will meet in Orlando next week. Given their offensive struggles without Bojan Bogdanovic, they are in serious jeopardy of sliding down to No. 7 and drawing the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.
While their stock is falling, the Lakers are as sturdy as ever. They'd led the Western Conference practically wire-to-wire, and fittingly, their clincher came against the team that also produced their first win of the LeBron James-Anthony Davis era in October. Now, the Lakers can set their sights a bit higher. They've put themselves in position to win a championship. And now, everything they do until the playoffs start can be in service of that goal. Here are the main takeaways from the Lakers' win.
Has Anthony Davis surpassed LeBron?
LeBron James has been the best Laker for most of the season. He's the MVP candidate, the driver of their point guard-less offense and the face of their rebirth. But three games of bubble ball have tilted towards Davis, and his outburst on Monday is why they have the No. 1 seed clinched right now. It might be a symptom of their poor shooting, but the Lakers have eschewed much of the drive-and-kick and pick-and-roll game James favors in order to pound the ball inside to Davis, who has scored efficiently and gotten to the line more than ever. They were always an inside-out team, but James has averaged only 19.3 points per game in Orlando. Davis is averaging 30. So far, he's been their most consistent form of offense, and that's a major storyline to watch heading into the postseason.
The Lakers finally have a bench
Davis may have been the best Laker player, but the Lakers played their best overall basketball when the backups were in. Only one reserve, JR Smith, had a negative plus-minus on Monday. The rest were all positive, and the leader was Kyle Kuzma at +12. Dion Waiters has played only three games as a Laker, but they have outscored their opponents by 36 points in that time. By comparison, the player he is replacing, Rajon Rondo, played 48 games as a Laker, and the Lakers only outscored their opponents by 45 points in that time. The bench was a real problem for the Lakers, but the ball-handling element he's provided has allowed Kuzma to focus more on shooting and defense, and seems to have helped the rest of the rotation fall comfortably into place.
Stick a fork in the Jazz. They're done
It is such a shame for a team that entered the season with such promise to go out with such a whimper. But without Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz are simply helpless offensively. During the regular season, their offense was 8.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. They entered Monday's game with the second-lowest offensive rating in Orlando, trailing only the Lakers, who passed them in the victory.
Utah may still have Rudy Gobert, but they are not the defensive juggernaut they once were. The Jazz are ranked only 10th in defense this year. Their championship hopes relied on having both an offense and a defense that were very good, since neither was elite. That just doesn't look possible without Bogdanovic. The Jazz are limping into what should be a hasty first-round exit.