There is no time during an NBA season to catch one’s breath, to appreciate the overachievement of one’s team, that it survived a brutal stretch of games with a difficult set of injuries, and emerged even.
So the Lakers packed up after a Monday-morning practice for a trip that will include two sets of back-to-back games, more than 2,000 miles of travel, and three opponents with more than 10 wins each.
“It is a challenge,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said. “We go from the south to the north to the north back to the south. Makes zero sense. …
“You do your best, I know it’s a cliche, but literally trying to take it one game at a time. As coaches we’ll look bigger picture than that as far as minutes and how much certain guys are playing. But the message to the players is we got New Orleans to start it off, let’s try and start with a win.”
The Lakers (9-9) will face the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday, then fly more than 800 miles after the game to play the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday. They’ll spend one extra night in Chicago after their game, then make the short hop to Toronto on Thursday morning in advance of their Friday night game against the Raptors. After playing the Raptors, the Lakers will make another flight of more than 800 miles to play the Grizzlies in Memphis.
That the Lakers are 9-9 so far this season is unexpected. And while they have had some anticipated losses — a blowout loss on the second night of a back-to-back against the Warriors, another lopsided loss to the Warriors while missing three starters, a loss to the San Antonio Spurs — they’ve continually offered small surprises.
“Atlanta’s been a top-three seed in the East for four, five years now,” Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. said. “That’s an awesome win. That’s a great team. They’re going to be in the playoffs this year. To get the season sweep of them was really big for us.”
Walton is hoping the Lakers will get healthier as the trip progresses. Power forward Julius Randle is questionable for Tuesday’s game against the Pelicans because of a hip pointer injury, but Walton is hoping that Randle will become available at some point during the trip.
He has both a bone bruise and an injury to his oblique muscles. The muscle has been experiencing spasms that have hampered Randle.
“I don’t have to be pain-free, I’m just trying to figure out a way around it,” Randle said. “But the biggest thing is I don’t want it to get worse. You know, it’s easy to play through an injury, but I don’t want it to get worse and then it affect us down the long run. We’re trying to fight for the playoffs or we’re trying to fight for seeding, and I’m not there because I didn’t take care of a nagging injury 20 games into the season.”
Point guard D’Angelo Russell made the trip with the team, but isn’t expecting to play during it. Russell said he wants to be with the team, rehabbing on the road as they play.
On this trip, New Orleans (6-12) is the Lakers’ only foe that hasn’t yet reached 10 wins. Even that team, though, is likely to pose a bigger challenge than in the Lakers’ 126-99 win on their last trip to New Orleans. Guard Jrue Holiday, a UCLA product, returned this month after a leave of absence to care for his ailing wife. The Pelicans went on a four-game winning streak after his return, and are 4-2 with him.
“Having Jrue Holiday back has been a huge difference for them,” Walton said. “But we’re a very capable team, so we got to go in there with the mind-set of we worry about tonight, and worry about the rest of the trip afterwards.”
AT NEW ORLEANS
When: Tuesday, 5 p.m. PST.
Where: Smoothie King Center.
On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet, Spectrum Deportes; Radio: 710, 1330.
Records: Lakers 9-9; Pelicans 6-12.
Record vs. Pelicans: 1-0.
Update: The Pelicans’ worst loss of the season came to the Lakers the last time they visited New Orleans, helped in part by a short absence by the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis because of an injury for about five minutes of the game. Since guard Jrue Holiday’s return on Nov. 18, the Pelicans are 4-2, but they have lost their last two games by double digits, to the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks.