Everywhere you turned, visible signs emerged highlighting the Lakers’ dreary playoff fortunes.
Russell Westbrook relentlessly carved up a porous Lakers defense.
Lakers forward Jordan Hill will have season-ending hip surgery.
Long when the game was out of reach, the Lakers announced their free taco promotion that happens when the Lakers win and hold a team under 100 points. Lakers fans loudly booed.
The Lakers’ 116-101 loss Friday to the Oklahoma City Thunder appeared so unwatchable that even actor and longtime fan Jack Nicholson had enough. Television cameras caught him waving, giving a dismissive hand gesture and then walking out in the final minutes. Soon enough, the Lakers lost six consecutive games for the first time since 2007 and went off to their worst start since the 1993-94 season.
It didn’t take that long for Magic Johnson to feel disgusted. That moment came when the Lakers trailed 64-48 at halftime.
“It’s over for my Lakers,” Johnson said during ESPN’s broadcast of the game. “No playoffs, no nothing.”
It’s hard to disagree with him.
“I’m sure he’s not in the minority of thinking that way,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said.
For good reason too.
The Lakers (15-21) are in 11th place in the Western Conference and trail the Portland Trail Blazers (20-16) by five games for the eighth playoff spot. Forget about the top seed. The Lakers are behind the Thunder (28-8) by 13 games. Forget about home-court advantage. The Lakers remain 10 games shy of reaching the Memphis Grizzlies (24-10).
For the last five seasons, the eighth NBA playoff team averaged 48 victories. That means it’s likely the Lakers will have to go 33-13 for the rest of the season.
Do the Lakers believe this is an impossible task?
“Nah, I’m way too stubborn,” Bryant said.
Yes, the Lakers are living by the mantra, “Don’t Stop Believing.” In fact, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni delivered this message after the team lost six consecutive games for the first time since 2007.
“The biggest thing is that our season starts Sunday,” D’Antoni said, when the Lakers host the Cleveland Cavaliers at Staples Center. “We put ourselves in this ditch and we are the only ones that can get ourselves out.”
The process could be one hard journey.
The Lakers play teams with at least a .500 record in 26 of their remaining 46 games. They’ve only gone 5-12 on the road, and have a seven-game, 11-day trip in February that include stops in Brooklyn, Boston and Miami. And in the short term, it remains unclear when Pau Gasol (concussion) and Dwight Howard (right shoulder) will return to the court.
But a boastful Metta World Peace hardly paid Johnson much mind over his prediction.
“That’s Magic,” World Peace said. “Magic is a commentator. Magic threw in the towel even when we won the championship that year. Magic’s always throwing the towel when he’s not playing.
Instead, World Peace provided reporters with this parting message, “I’ll see ya’ll in June when I’m popping the champagne. You can have some.”
Why so optimistic?
“So many times, we did the impossible,” World Peace said, before reflecting on his 13-year NBA career. “This is just another thing where so many times it happened. I remember when I got traded from Chicago to Indiana, we had to win the last five games in a row to get into the playoffs and we did. When I got traded from Indiana to Sacramento, that Sacramento team wasn’t talented as this team and we were in this same situation in February. Then we led that team into an eighth spot. We almost beat San Antonio. We were in a worse situation than this without these kind of players.
World Peace wasn’t finished.
“Even in Houston, we were in a situation where T-Mac got hurt and Yao got hurt. They hadn’t been out of the first round in 12 years,” World Peace said. “I came here and we had to win when we were down 13 points in the last quarter in a Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. “You’re asking the wrong person if it’s slipping away.”
Instead, Bryant vowed that the team’s worried more about fixing the execution than playoff fortunes.
Regardless, Bryant ticked off many adjustments the team needs to make: improving on transition defense, shutting off open drives to the basket and forcing contested jumpers. He refused to buy into the Lakers’ extensive injury history as a reason for the team’s misfortunes, arguing “you make your own luck.” Bryant suggested more weaknesses will emerge on film.
It’s hard for the Lakers not to feel overwhelmed.
“When you find yourself in this situation, the best thing you can do is just try to get yourself out of it,” Bryant said. “It’s as simple as that. I’m not the type to sit around and feel sorry for myself or feel sorry for what we’re going through as a team. It is what it is. You’ve got to tighten up your belt and get to work.”