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Lakers not ready to let go of playoff hopes

Right at the trade deadline, Isaiah Thomas was traded to a team that was below .500 by double digits. It was a young team nobody expected to be good just yet. A young team for which slow gains, even without a playoff berth, would be enough.

Actually that's happened twice.

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It happened in February of 2015, when the Phoenix Suns traded Thomas to the Boston Celtics.

Then the same scenario repeated in February of 2018, when the Cleveland Cavaliers traded Thomas to the Lakers.

"When I got traded to Boston, it was a young team thinking rebuild, and play the young guys and things like that," Thomas said. "But we came together and were like, shoot, if we play hard and leave it all out on the floor anything can happen. I think that's what we are doing now."

Thomas isn't the only one thinking about the playoffs. At 28-34, the Lakers are 6½ games from the final playoff spot with only 20 games left. Despite that, he and the point guard he mentors are both unafraid to make that their goal.

"I mean, that's why I play," Lonzo Ball said. "I play to win. So hopefully we can get in."

The Lakers are now in a fifth season that began with, at best, faint playoff hopes. Since Lakers coach Luke Walton arrived, in fact, the word "playoffs" has been a bit taboo. He made it clear that he didn't want the goal to be about wins and losses. Rebuilding may include losing, but it still can include progress.

As this season progressed, Walton changed his philosophy slightly. In late December, amid their nine-game losing streak, Walton made it clear that he now expected wins from his team. The players set that standard for themselves, he said.

But there is a step between expecting wins and outwardly reaching for the playoffs.

"I think we just keep doing what we're doing because it's working, and that's building our identity as a team," Julius Randle said, when asked specifically about making a playoff push. "You know, taking the defensive end very seriously and coming out and playing very hard and establishing how we're playing every night and the wins and losses take care of themselves."

Randle's response fits the mantra Walton repeats to his players: "Control what you can control."

The Lakers can control how they play. However, they can't control whether a strong finish will be enough to make a true playoff push, especially in the Western Conference.

The Denver Nuggets (35-28) hold the final playoff spot in the conference. The Clippers are in ninth place (5½ games ahead of the Lakers) and the Jazz are 10th (one game behind the Clippers.).

The Lakers (28-4), who are in 11th, are amid a five-game winning streak. The problem is, the teams above them keep winning. Utah is 8-2 in its past 10 games, while the Clippers and Nuggets are both 7-3.

That degree of difficulty might be part of what appeals to Thomas, who has found himself as an underdog many times before and in many different ways.

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We know what happened in Boston the year the Celtics acquired Thomas. Thomas helped a young team that was starting to turn things around, and the Celtics accrued one of the best records in the league after the All-Star break. They snuck into the playoffs as the seventh seed.

We don't know how this year's story ends for Thomas and the Lakers. But what he saw happen in Boston, he thinks can happen here.

"I'm trying to make the playoffs; every time I step on the floor I want this team to think 'we're going to win,' " Thomas said. "Because we have the talent to win. We have the players to win in this locker room and that's the only thing we should be talking about, and that's taking the next step and getting to the playoffs."

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli

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