SAN ANTONIO — With his 37-year-old body on the floor of the Lakers’ locker room, forward Metta World Peace lay on a mat /performing a series of yoga stretches. World Peace fittingly seemed at peace as he twisted his body like a pretzel.
“If I play, I got to,” World Peace said. “I won’t last.”
All of which raises one question: why would World Peace in the Lakers’ 102-95 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday at AT&T Center? The Lakers had acquired World Peace mostly for his off-court mentorship than for his on-court abilities, something that became more pronounced as the Lakers placed priority on developing their young players once the NBA playoffs became unrealistic. Yet, there World Peace was on the court in the last week of the regular season, tussling with Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, posting five points on 2-of-5 shooting and logging 17 minutes.
Afterwards, Lakers coach Luke Walton largely attributed World Peace’s participation to a minutes restriction on rookie forward Brandon Ingram, who had eight points on 3-of-4 shooting in 10 minutes in the first half after feeling increased soreness in the tendinitis in his right knee during morning shootaround. The Lakers also have only one other wing player in Corey Brewer, who had five points and four assists in 21 minutes. Then again, World Peace did not play in the three games Ingram missed last week because of the same injury.
“There wasn’t anyone else to go to,” Walton said. “Not being a knock on Metta, but we are trying to play younger players right now. You look down the bench and San Antonio has big, strong defenders. And to me, I love the opportunity to play Metta.”
World Peace rarely has received those opportunities. He has averaged 1.2 points on 23.5 percent shooting in five minutes through 21 appearances. Though World Peace still remained on the active roster as Walton gradually shut down veterans such as Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng and Nick Young for the sake of allocating more minutes to his younger players, World Peace had sat in 15 of the previous 16 games.
Yet, Walton resisted increasing available minutes to other forwards, such as Julius Randle (11 points, eight rebounds in 29 minutes), Thomas Robinson (seven points, seven rebounds in 19 minutes) and Tarik Black (five points, eight rebounds in 27 minutes). With Mozgov shut down and rookie center Ivica Zubac out for the season with a high right ankle sprain, Larry Nance Jr. played at the center spot for the third consecutive game and posted 15 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes.
“He’s been so good all year for us. He works his tail off in practice. He never complains about not playing,” Walton said of World Peace. “So if I get an opportunity to get Metta out there, I love taking advantage of that, putting him in there and giving him a chance to play in the real games.”
Of course, suspicion aroused among Lakers fans on social media that Walton was simply trying to take advantage of hurting the Lakers’ chance to win so they could maximize their NBA lottery chances. The Lakers (23-55) “trail” the Phoenix Suns (22-57) by 1.5 games for the NBA’s second-worst record. While they have a 46.9 percent chance of keeping their top-three protected pick, the Lakers would have 55.8 percent odds if they had a worse record than the Suns.
“I’m not a fan. I don’t think anything of it,” World Peace said about fan angst over the NBA draft lottery odds. “That’s between them and their thoughts. I don’t get in between the fans and his or her thoughts. I’m sure they have three different things going on in their head. I’m just going to stay in my head. Let the fans tell you millions of them. They got tons of things to say on Twitter. I love it.”
Though Walton called those implications “a unique situation,” he downplayed whether he formulated lineups to put the Lakers in a position to fail.
“Our players’ jobs are to go out there and win. They did a great job of that tonight,” Walton said. “At the end of the day, it’s a lottery anyway. They’re going to need some luck from the basketball gods. We’re going to keep playing what is best for our team. We expect our players to go out and compete the way they did tonight every game. I’m proud of the effort tonight.”
World Peace showed plenty of effort. Despite having an accomplished 16-year NBA career that included winning a championship with the Lakers (2010), World Peace expressed the same kind of giddiness heard from rookies or Development League callups appearing in their first NBA game.
“It was good. It was fun. I enjoyed it,” World Peace said. “It’s good to measure myself to see where I’m at and bump Kawhi a little bit. It’s great to play against Kawhi. If I’m going to play against anybody, it’s good that it’s him.”
That’s because World Peace said Leonard “can do everything,” before praising his basketball intelligence, passing, outside shooting and defense.
“I mix it up and don’t give no ground,” World Peace said. “I have to use what I have because I don’t got no hops. I can’t do that.”
That amused Walton, who remembered the former Ron Artest provided those qualities in his prime with the Lakers (2009-2013) and with the Houston Rockets in a seven-game series against the Lakers in the 2009 Western Conference semifinals.
“It brings me a smile to my face seeing him get tangled up with Kawhi and remember what it was like playing against him in my younger days and how much I hated it,” Walton said. “Watching other people have to deal with that is a lot of fun for me.”
It was also fun for World Peace, who then resorted to yoga stretches in hopes to play again.