Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James had his All-Star Game outing cut short after hitting his hand on the rim in the first half on Sunday in Salt Lake City, but he still got to enjoy the festivities. First, as a captain going drafting against Giannis Antetokounmpo, and later during a celebration honoring him for setting the league's all-time scoring record earlier this month.
Now, with both the record and All-Star Weekend in the rearview mirror, he can turn his attention to getting the Lakers back in the playoff picture.
"It's 23 of the most important games of my career, for the regular season," James said of the Lakers' remaining schedule. "That's the type of mindset that I have and I hope the guys will have coming off the break... I'm going to figure out ways to make sure I'm available and on the floor for every single one of these 23 games."
Exiting the All-Star break, the Lakers are stuck in 13th place in the Western Conference at 27-32. At this point, their hopes of getting a top-six spot are hanging by a thread, but there's still plenty of time for them to get back into the play-in picture. They're only two games behind the 10th-place Oklahoma City Thunder, and neither them, nor the Utah Jazz (11th) nor Portland Trail Blazers (12th) seem likely to run away with that spot. The Lakers' first seven games out of the All-Star break are all against teams ahead of them in the Western Conference, including two apiece against the Warriors and Grizzlies.
Another source of optimism for the Lakers is that they revamped their roster at the trade deadline with multiple moves that included sending out Russell Westbrook (who has since joined the Clippers), and are now younger and more athletic. Even more important, the players they added are a better fit around James and Anthony Davis. In a decidedly small sample size, they are 2-1 since making those moves.
The closing part of James' quote from the weekend is key, however. While the Lakers still have a chance to get into the play-in, they'll need James (and Davis) on the floor as much as possible down the stretch. Their two stars have been limited to 45 and 35 games, respectively, which is a big reason the Lakers are in the spot they're in. If those two aren't on the floor and performing at a high level, nothing else really matters all that much.
As for the opening line of James' quote, regarding the importance of these games, it's hard to argue with him too much. He hasn't missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since his first two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and has usually been on one of the best teams in the league. For most of his career, the regular season has simply been a tune up for the playoffs. That's not true this time around, as he'll have to dig deep to get the Lakers into the mix and avoid sitting out the postseason for the third time since joining the Lakers in 2018.