The Whiteboard: Concern for Lakers, Nets miss James Harden and more

Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images
Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images /

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The Los Angeles Lakers are cratering toward a place no one expected even two months ago. Coming off a title run in the Orlando bubble and a start to the 2020-21 campaign that saw them sitting in second place in the Western Conference, the defending NBA champions are teetering on the edge of a guaranteed playoff spot.

Following Thursday’s blowout loss to the LA Clippers, the sixth-place Lakers are tied with the seventh-place Portland Trail Blazers at 37-29. Friday’s showdown between these two teams — on the second night of a back-to-back for LA — will determine who possesses the head-to-head tiebreaker. And with only five regular-season games left after that, whoever wins that game and gets the tiebreaker essentially ensures the loser will have to finish two games better in order to leapfrog back up the standings.

The fifth-place Dallas Mavericks, who are currently one game ahead of both the Lakers and Blazers, could still be in play to fall into that dreaded play-in scenario as the 7-seed, but they already own the tiebreaker over LA. Even worse, the Lakers won’t be getting LeBron James back on the floor until Tuesday or Wednesday’s game next week, and Anthony Davis exited Thursday’s loss with back spasms.

AD says he’ll be good to go for Friday’s pivotal road game against the Blazers, but he hasn’t been his typically dominant self since returning from his calf injury, and with LeBron out through the weekend, there’s a very good chance the Lakers drop to the 7-seed with little time to make up the necessary ground to avoid the play-in games.

Their remaining schedule does them no favors either. After a road game in Portland on the second night of a back-to-back, the Lakers get the Phoenix Suns — who are a league-best 25-9 against teams with winning records — at home. Then it’s the pesky, surging New York Knicks. That’s luckily followed by the tanking Houston Rockets, but even that game is on the second night of a back-to-back. Road games against the Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Pelicans, two teams who may still be competing for a play-in spot, close out the season.

That’s a doozy for this beaten-up Lakers squad, especially with AD banged up, Dennis Schroder still in health and safety protocols, and LeBron set to miss at least the two most important games of the home stretch.

But wait, there’s more! The Mavs’ remaining schedule is a cake walk comparatively, with contests against the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice), Memphis Grizzlies, Pelicans, Toronto Raptors and Minnesota Timberwolves remaining. Those opponents hold a collective win percentage of .396, and not a single one of those teams is over .500.

The Blazers have an admittedly tougher remaining slate, going up against the Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Rockets, Utah Jazz, Suns and Denver Nuggets, but if they beat a tired LA team on Friday, they’ll have to lose two more of their remaining five games than the Lakers do to fall back down the standings. The math doesn’t leave room for any missteps in that scenario.

Beating Portland is the best path for the Lakers to avoid the play-in situation, where they’d suddenly be two losses away from missing the postseason entirely. But if a determined and better-rested Blazers team beats these shorthanded Lakers playing on the second night of a back-to-back, the play-in tournament could very quickly become reality for the defending champs.

Nets struggling without James Harden

Stat Muse has been tracking this for awhile now, but now that the Brooklyn Nets have lost their fourth straight game, it’s more important than ever: Since the James Harden trade, the Nets are 27-7 with their bearded MVP … compared to 9-11 without him.

What’s alarming is half of those games came with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the floor; the Nets are just 4-6 when those two play but Harden is out.

They’ve had problems closing out games without Harden as well. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Brooklyn boasts a 20-2 record in games that involve crunch-time minutes (where the score is within five points in the final five minutes). Without him, that record in the clutch plummets to 6-11.

It’s almost as if the Nets need someone who can not only score in isolation but create for others too! KD and Kyrie are many things, but their iso-heavy playing styles don’t bring out the best in their teammates the way Harden does with his visionary passing and playmaking.

Back-to-back losses to the Milwaukee Bucks showed there’s another legitimate threat to win the East, sure. But since those games came without James Harden, what it really showed is that the Nets are vulnerable without their best player … and still the team to beat as long as he can return healthy before the playoffs.

Are the Washington Wizards ready to do the damn thing?

Yes, the Washington Wizards will be the last team to qualify for the play-in tournament in the East. They obviously have the worst record of those 10 teams at 31-36, but they also have the worst point differential of that group (minus-2.2).

And yet … this is still one of the hottest teams in basketball right now. Thanks to their 14-4 burst over the last month, the Wizards are suddenly only 0.5 games behind the Indiana Pacers for ninth place. They have the second-best record in the association over that stretch, as well as the fifth-best point differential. Russell Westbrook is making triple-double history what seems like every night, Bradley Beal is still vying for the scoring title and the Wizards suddenly look like the “team nobody wants to play.”

Now, none of this changes the reality that they’ll probably have to win two do-or-die games just to make the postseason, and that’s before considering they’ll then have to face the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. Nobody should go making any hasty upset picks, even if you’re not convinced Philly is legitimately the beast of the East.

But the play-in tournament is meant to conjure up excitement for the races at the bottom of the playoff field, and while everyone’s gaze fixates on LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Ja Morant and possibly Zion Williamson out West, the team that could really make this play-in experiment exciting is the Eastern Conference squad everyone wrote off months ago.

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