LeBron James outsprinted a retreating Anthony Davis to the top of the key, collected a pass from Rajon Rondo on the open floor and soared toward the unobstructed basket. His thunderous dunk set up another, a turnover by the New Orleans Pelicans on the ensuing inbounds play resulting in a finish by Kyle Kuzma that was nearly equal in ferocity.
The crowd at Staples Center celebrated as it has rarely celebrated in this disappointing season for the Lakers, the successive third-quarter baskets prompting the fans to jump and shout like they do when the games still count.
The Lakers are barely alive, but they are alive. So are the delusions of their fans.
A defeat Wednesday night would have practically ended their season, vanished whatever hope remained of them reaching the postseason. The Lakers responded to a must-win situation by delivering a 125-119 victory, as James scored 33 points, Brandon Ingram continued to serve as a legitimate second option and Rajon Rondo totaled 16 assists.
What made the game Wednesday night must-win had nothing to do with symbolism of Davis still being on the other team after the Lakers’ very public and failed attempt to acquire him at the trade deadline.
The designation had more to do with how bad the Pelicans are. And they’re even worse now that Davis is on some farcical minutes restriction designed to ensure the center remains healthy enough to be traded in the offseason.
The Lakers don’t have many gimmes on their schedule. This game was one of them.
“We needed to win,” coach Luke Walton said.
Reaching the postseason will require them to win, what, 15 of their last 21 games? Only seven of their remaining opponents have sub-.500 records, including the Pelicans, whom they visit on March 31.
They can’t afford to drop these games.
That’s what made the recent consecutive defeats on the road to the Pelicans and even-worse Memphis Grizzlies so painful. Those were supposed to be the rare soft parts of their schedule. Every defeat to a New Orleans or a Memphis translated to an upcoming game against a Milwaukee or a Denver that would have to be won.
Regardless of whom they play, the Lakers haven’t enjoyed the kind of the run they have to make if they intend to play beyond their regular-season finale on April 9.
They were 11-3 over a particular stretch that lasted nearly a month from early November to early December.
Their longest winning streak was four games. They had two such streaks, both of which were part of the 14-game stretch mentioned above.
They haven’t won more than two consecutive games since then.
This is unusual for teams with James. Whether it was with the Cleveland Cavaliers or Miami Heat, every playoff team James played on had at least one five-game winning streak.
The Lakers entered Wednesday losers in four of their last five games and six of their last eight.
In the games James has played since returning from his groin injury, the Lakers were 3-5 before the latest visit from the Pelicans.
The simplest explanation is the Lakers are themselves a bad team, or at very least an extremely inconsistent one.
The Lakers notched their 15th win in their 24th game of the season. They’re now in a position where they have to win 15 times in 21 games and do so with their defense compromised by the prolonged absence of Lonzo Ball.
James maintained he was optimistic.
“We’re not worried about what the time strain is or what everyone else is saying,” James said. “I think it’s what happens in here and I feel good about where we are.”
At very least, the Lakers are starting to form a sense of identity on offense, with Ingram and Kuzma scoring with greater consistency. Ingram scored 23 points on Wednesday; Kuzma had 22.
And they still have James, who sealed the victory with a step-back three pointer from the corner with 31.3 seconds remaining to extend the Lakers’ advantage to 123-117.
But the reality is the Lakers will now have to take down teams with considerably better records than theirs, which are playing considerably better than they are. Reality will visit them Friday. The Bucks have the best record in the NBA and they are coming to Staples Center.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez