Another day, another loss as the Lakers fall to 2-4 inside of the Disney bubble. The Western Conference's No. 1 seed may have their playoff position locked up, but if they keep playing this way, their stay in the postseason won't be a long one. The Indiana Pacers beat them 116-111 thanks to another T.J. Warren scoring outburst. He closed the game with 39, bringing his Orlando average up to 38.4 points in five games.
He may have been the brightest star on the floor, but he wasn't the only one. LeBron James turned in his best performance in the bubble with 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, but his co-star didn't hold up his end of the bargain. Anthony Davis scored only eight points on 3-of-14 shooting, and despite Quinn Cook's five 3-pointers and a nice showing from rookie Talen Horton-Tucker, the Lakers couldn't secure the victory.
Their own seed may be set, but the Lakers now have only two games left to get back on track before their first-round series begins. Indiana still has three to play, two of which will come against the team they directly trail in the standings, the Miami Heat. They can finish as high as No. 4 and as low as No. 6, but if Warren keeps shooting like this, they'll be a threat against whoever they draw. Here are the major takeaways from tonight's game.
Pacers have tough decisions to make in light of this Warren thing
Look, there's always the chance that this is just a hot streak. It could be a fluke. T.J. Warren could be his old self again when next season starts. He could be his old self again tomorrow. Or, as is seeming increasingly likely, this is just who T.J. Warren is when he's playing the right position. Warren has played 60 percent of his minutes at small forward this season, but with Domantas Sabonis out, he's shifted to power forward and reaped the benefits.
The scariest thing about what he's doing right now is that it isn't coming purely off of isolations or pick-and-roll opportunities like most great scorers. He's just existing within a great offense, cutting and screening and taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. Because of how small and fast the Pacers are playing right now, he's finding a lot of them. Typically, small-ball comes with a defense compromise, but with Warren on the floor in Orlando, the Pacers allowed only 102.8 points per 100 possessions in their first four games.
Indiana caught lightning in a bottle here, and it's time to seriously wonder what they can do to maximize it. Domantas Sabonis was an All-Star this season. Myles Turner is a better shooter and defender, and therefore fit with Warren. Does one of them need to go in order to fully unleash Warren next season? Through no fault of their own, both have become expendable. The Pacers have some difficult decisions ahead of them this offseason.
At least LeBron got back on track
Bubble-Bron, prior to Saturday, started off slowly enough to create legitimate questions about his eventual postseason performance. It's understandable. LeBron is 35 and is a creature of habit. He said that his body was "turning the corner" just before the shutdown. There was no telling what four months off would do to him. After averaging only 19.3 points on 42 percent shooting in the first four Laker games in Orlando, it would have been fair to suggest that he had a long way to go physically.
Saturday was proof that James is, if not rounding the corner, at least progressing towards playoff conditioning. The 31 points were impressive, but more importantly, he took 24 shots and played 35 minutes in a highly competitive game. LeBron had been passive early on in Orlando. Now we see why. This was a slow progression, but one that is starting to pay off with the MVP-candidate we saw all year gearing up for the postseason.
Two games away from playoffs and Lakers rotation still unclear
It would be one thing to experiment in the first game or two in Orlando, but the closer we get to the playoffs, the less certain Frank Vogel seems to be in his rotation. The Lakers have outscored opponents by 6.6 points per 100 possessions with Dion Waiters on the floor, the best number on the team in Orlando, but he sat in favor of Quinn Cook on Saturday, who made five 3-pointers in 24 minutes. That is only going to confuse matters further, especially with Rajon Rondo coming back. Talen Horton-Tucker has now played meaningful minutes two games in a row, and Vogel has seemed open to giving him playoff minutes. Markieff Morris is in and out of the lineup. Lately, so is Jared Dudley.
You get eight spots in the playoffs. Maybe nine. That's it. Overplaying benches is one of the easiest ways to lose a series, but right now, all we can say definitively about the Laker lineup on a given day is that James and Davis will be a big part of it. Otherwise? All bets are off, and Vogel is running out of time to determine who his best eight or nine players are.