Three Things to Know: Could the Lakers miss even the play-in?
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1) Are the Lakers going to miss even the play-in?
This loss would have gotten Frank Vogel fired at points this season.
“I’m really lost for words,” said Dwight Howard, who is never at a loss for words and is the unrelenting positive force around these Lakers. He didn’t just say that once, he said it half a dozen times in various forms after the Lakers reached a new low point in what has been a season of new low points, a dispiriting 123-95 loss to the Pelicans Sunday.
That’s the Pelicans who have now surged into a tie with Portland for the No. 10 seed and the final play-in spot in the West — both teams are 2.5 games back of the No. 9 seed Lakers (3 in the loss column) with 22 games to play. The San Antonio Spurs are 3.5 games back of Los Angeles.
It is possible — not likely, but possible — that some combination of the Pelicans, Blazers, and Spurs pass the Lakers and leave Los Angeles on the outside looking in at even the play-in. That is the preseason betting favorite to come out of the West we’re talking about. Fivethirtyeight.com predicts New Orleans will pass Los Angeles for the No. 9 seed, and the Lakers and Spurs will finish 34-48 and tied for 10th and the last play-in spot.
The Lakers’ play and body language Sunday night looked like that of a broken team — one that would have a hard time winning seven more games this season to get to 34 wins (even once Anthony Davis returns). If one play summed up the night, it was this one from DeAndre Jordan.
Give the Pelicans credit, they have won 6-of-10, including beating the Suns and Lakers on this mini-road trip. CJ McCollum has been a force of nature since being traded to the Big Easy out of Portland, averaging 28 points a game with a ridiculous 63.1 true shooting percentage.
McCollum dropped 22 on the Lakers while Jonas Valanciunas and Brandon Ingram each added 19. There was a balanced attack and good defensive effort. Coach Willie Green has the Pelicans playing their best basketball of the season, ignoring the distractions around them — hello Zion — and looking like a postseason team.
Frank Vogel looks like the coach of a team with a broken spirit.
Lakers fans were booing from the third quarter on, and the effort level deserved it. Los Angeles rolled over in this loss. They didn’t get back on defense. They had 23 turnovers — one in five trips down the court was a turnover, but it felt higher than that — with both LeBron James and the guy he pushed to get on the team this season, Russell Westbrook, having seven turnovers each. Lakers not named LeBron shot 36% on the night. Los Angeles finished with a 90.2 offensive rating.
Things do not get easier. The Lakers have the second-toughest remaining schedule in the league.
A few more games like this one and the Lakers won’t have to worry about making it out of the play-in. They can watch those games from home.
2) That didn’t take long: Harden, Embiid have 76ers’ offense humming
James Harden made history with his 29 point, 16 assist, 10 rebound triple-double on Sunday: He is the first player ever to have 25+ points and 10+ assists in each of his first two games with a new team.
Through two games, Harden, Joel Embiid, and Tyrese Maxey have combined for 176 points.
The mid-season marriage of Harden and Embiid hasn’t taken long to click on offense, and it showed Sunday as they helped the Sixers pull away late to beat the Knicks 125-109.
Sunday was a 76er parade to the free throw line — expect a lot of Philadelphia games to look like that with Harden and Embiid, two strong players who get downhill and put pressure on defenders. The 76ers got to the line 44 times Sunday (making 39), their most attempts in a game this season. They had 36 attempts in their previous game against Minnesota.
Everything is working. Embiid has been a willing dribble hand-off/pick-setter and roller for Harden (a role he has not traditionally played in his career), and that has Philly’s two stars playing downhill and getting to the rim. Harden puts incredible pressure on the defense in that setting because he can both get to the rim and score, but is also such a gifted passer, finding Embiid if he gets any space on the roll (or if he pops out for a jumper).
With his speed and shooting, Maxey has been the big beneficiary of the space created by Harden and Embiid and has 49 points in the last two games on 20-of-30 shooting.
It’s just two games and there are plenty of questions still to be answered. Tobias Harris should be the third-best player on this team but has not found a comfort level even taking many shots in the offense. His style of play is not a natural fit. Then there is the issue of backup center, Paul Millsap has not impressed in that role so far. Finally, the 76ers have yet to play a team that can test their defense and go after Harden and get him moving on that end.
That said, the Sixers have answered every question they have been asked for two games, and they look every bit the threat to come out of the East so far.
3) Suns miss Chris Paul late in loss to Jazz
The Phoenix Suns have been the best clutch team in the NBA this season, 28-3 heading into Sunday, because Chris Paul doesn’t make many mistakes or turn the ball over in those high-pressure minutes.
Without Chris Paul on Sunday against Utah…
The Jazz knocked off the Suns 118-114 on Sunday behind 26 from Donovan Mitchell and strong bench play, led by Jordan Clarkson with 22. The Jazz have won 8-of-9 and are finding their groove on both ends of the floor in the final stretch of the season, looking more and more like a team that could threaten the Suns and Warriors this postseason.
But these Suns are not the same without Chris Paul (out for most or all of the rest of the regular season with a fractured thumb). Phoenix has dropped both games without CP3 since the All-Star break, to the surging Pelicans and now the Jazz. Devin Booker scored 30, while Cameron Johnson and Deandre Ayton each scored 23, but the depth and balance that has the Suns with the best record in the NBA — and their strong defense — has not been on display since the All-Star break.
The Suns still have a six-game lead over the Warriors for the best record in the NBA and the schedule is soft enough — and the Suns good enough — that they will hold on to that spot. However, it’s become evident just how much Paul is the glue that makes these Suns run in big moments.
Highlight of the Night: Kelly Olynyk drains game-winner for Pistons
The Pistons had done well to force overtime against the Hornets on the road, and at the end of overtime they had 2.1 seconds to break their 15-game losing streak to the Hornets.
The play appeared to be designed for Jerami Grant, who had the hot hand, but it gets blown up by the defense. Then Kelly Olynyk broke into the open space.
Philadelphia 125, New York 109
Utah 118, Phoenix 114
Indiana 128, Boston 107
Detroit 127, Charlotte 126 (OT)
LA Clippers 99, Houston 98
Dallas 107, Golden State 101
Denver 124, Portland 92
Pelicans 123, LA Lakers 95