Can Lakers win NBA title at No. 7? ‘It will be the hardest challenge any team has ever had’

In one moment, Los Angeles Lakers forward Jared Dudley conceded how vulnerable this team could be entering the NBA playoffs. Less than a year after winning an NBA championship, the Lakers will try to become the first seventh seed or lower in league history to win a league title.

“It will be the hardest challenge any team has ever had in NBA history,” Dudley said.

In another moment, Dudley contended the team feels secure with how it will navigate the journey. It starts with the Lakers (42-30) hosting the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors (39-33) in a play-in game on Wednesday at Staples Center. If the Lakers win that game, they would then face the No. 2 Phoenix Suns (51-21) in the first round of the playoffs.

If they lose on Wednesday, they would play either against the ninth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies (38-34) or No. 10 San Antonio Spurs (33-39) on Friday at Staples Center. The winner of that game would finish as the No. 8 seed and would face the No. 1 Utah Jazz in the playoffs.

With Anthony Davis and LeBron James returning to full health, the Lakers like their chances of a long playoff run.
With Anthony Davis and LeBron James returning to full health, the Lakers like their chances of a long playoff run.

“We’re the defending champs. They have to worry about us,” Dudley said. “We’re getting healthy at the right time and no one wants to see a healthy Laker team.”

Nonetheless, the Lakers captured in their 110-98 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday how delicate their improved health could be.

In what marked his second game since returning again from a right high ankle sprain, Lakers forward LeBron James said he “tweaked” his right ankle after stepping on the foot of New Orleans’ Nickeil Alexander-Walker following a 360-degree layup. James then sat the final 6:35 considering he had first missed 20 games, returned for two games and then missing six more to alleviate the pain.

Afterwards, Lakers coach Frank Vogel reported that James told him he has “no issues” and is “good to go” for Wednesday’s game. James then reiterated to reporters that “I’ll be fine.” He then admitted that optimism strictly relates to his availability.

Ever since Atlanta Hawks guard Solomon Hill dove toward his right ankle to chase a loose ball on March 20, James admitted he has not felt the same after “playing some of the best basketball in my career” that led to strong regular-season MVP consideration.

“I had a grown man diving at my leg for a loose ball and here’s the injury. So I had to pay the price of that and take my time and get my ankle to where it is today, where I can get back on the floor,” James said. “But it cost me seven weeks of the season and six weeks of the season. I still think back on and I still hate it. I’m not comfortable with it. I gave it much thought to it as what this season could’ve been for me personally.”

After all, the Lakers then ranked third in the Western Conference with a 28-14 record. Since then, the Lakers went 14-16 as they lost both home-court advantage in the first round and a secure playoff spot altogether. It did not help that James’ absence overlapped with forward Anthony Davis missing 20 games because of a strained right calf and Dennis Schroder missing a combined 11 games because the NBA’s health and safety protocols related to the coronavirus. Those marked the most significant absences on a team had that players miss a combined 163 games because of injuries and 26 games related to the league’s health and safety protocols.

As if the Lakers did not already face other challenges. They started the 2020-21 season only 71 days after winning the 2020 NBA title on a quarantined campus near Orlando. Amid a quest to have a younger and healthier roster, the Lakers had mixed results in integrating new players. They had three new centers (Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell, Andre Drummond) to offset the departures of two rim protectors (Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee). They had a dependable scorer (Schroder) try to compensate for the departure of a veteran leader (Rajon Rondo).

“I give us a C+. I didn’t think we were great at it,” Dudley said. “But let’s just be honest. This roster was built around LeBron and AD. I don’t care what team you are. If you don’t have your superstar players, you’re going to struggle.”

The lowest moment happened when the Lakers lost to the Toronto Raptors on May 2, which marked the team’s sixth loss in a seven-game stretch. That prompted Vogel to tell his team, “Remain together. Let’s not have everybody overreact.” Vogel added he stressed to his players, “we’re going to be okay if we stay the course and grind it and keep having a growth mindset each day.”

“I didn’t think things were unraveling,” Vogel said. “I think we were all just frustrated that we weren’t winning games at that point.”

The frustration soon subsided. Davis shed his rust. James returned from a six-game absence. Schroder got out of quarantine. Drummond could become used to playing with James and Davis. The Lakers liked how Kyle Kuzma and Talen-Horton Tucker emerged as young talents. In related news, the Lakers closed out the season with a five-game winning streak. The Lakers had not played this well since cementing a seven-game winning streak from Jan. 30 to Feb. 12.

“This helps us and makes us a better team in the playoffs,” Davis said. “I’m glad we went through it. It sucked we had to go through it, but I’m glad we went through it because it added some growth to our team.”

Will that growth be enough to make up lost ground? The majority of NBA championship teams have held top seeds at No. 1 (49), No. 2 (10) and No. 3 (seven). The 1969 Boston Celtics are the lone No. 4 seed to win an NBA title. The 1995 Houston Rockets are the only team, seeded at No. 6, to win an NBA championship without having home-court advantage in any playoff series.

But as former Rockets coach and newly inducted Hall of Famer Rudy Tomjanovich once said, “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.” The Lakers suggested the same thing.

LeBron James said, “I don’t look at our seeding. It doesn’t matter." But the Lakers' first order of business is to get past Stephen Curry and the Warriors in the play-in tournament.
LeBron James said, “I don’t look at our seeding. It doesn’t matter." But the Lakers' first order of business is to get past Stephen Curry and the Warriors in the play-in tournament.

“I don’t look at our seeding. It doesn’t matter,” James said. “Obviously, we know we wanted to play a lot better this season but injuries took a toll on our team. We’re finally starting to get whole and we’re starting feel a little bit better on our situation.”

Perhaps that explains why the L.A. Clippers and the Denver Nuggets faltered recently in hopes to avoid facing the Lakers in the first round. The Clippers dropped from No. 3 to No. 4 after losing to Houston and Oklahoma City while sitting Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Although the third-seeded Nuggets fielded a full roster, they lost by double digits to the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday. Had Portland lost, the Nuggets would have faced the Lakers in the first round.

“You don’t want to play the champs,” Dudley said. “Let’s just be honest. It’s not avoiding. You want to wait and play the best teams later on. Give yourself the best possible chance. Maybe they lose. Maybe they don’t. So I don’t call it avoiding. I call it good strategy.”

Dudley then questioned that strategy. After all, Vogel said James, Davis and Schroder still need more time to improve their conditioning. Vogel conceded James, Davis and Drummond need more time to develop chemistry.

“If I was one of those teams, I’d want to play us early. I would want to play a LeBron James that is coming off an ankle injury where they’re trying to find their chemistry,” Dudley said. “You think we’re going to be better later or better now? The more chemistry and more games, the stronger we get. We’re not going to get worse later on. So if I was a team, I’d want to play us right away.”

The Lakers will soon find out whether they are the strongest playoff team or the most vulnerable.

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lakers facing a tough challenge in trying to win NBA title at No. 7

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