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‘We got to win:’ The revamped Lakers are pushing to clinch a playoff spot

LeBron James sits on the bench with forward Anthony Davis, Jarred Vanderbilt and D'Angelo Russell.
LeBron James, left, of the Lakers sits on the bench with forward Anthony Davis, second from left, Jarred Vanderbilt and D’Angelo Russell during the second half against the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 9 at Crypto.com Arena.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
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The Lakers’ goal is to finish in the top six in the Western Conference and earn an automatic spot in the playoffs.

Now, if the Lakers finish in the top 10 and are forced to compete in the NBA’s play-in tournament, they would accept that too.

But after they had their first practice Wednesday following the All-Star break, Lakers coach Darvin Ham said the team has higher aspirations.

“Yeah, the goal is for us to come out and try to be the best version of ourselves each game, but definitely, if we can go and secure a spot, that is our goal right there,” Ham said. “If we fall into a play-in situation, so be it. But our No. 1 goal is to go secure a spot [and] not just throw games off here or there [and] just wish for a play-in. We want to go secure a spot.”

The Lakers are 13th in the West, 3½ games behind the Dallas Mavericks, who reside in the sixth position. The Lakers are two games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder, who hold the 10th spot and would be the last team in if the playoffs began today.

When the Lakers return to play Thursday, they’ll begin what LeBron James called “23 of the most important games of my career.” Here’s a look at why they’re so crucial.

Feb. 22, 2023

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Yes, the Lakers have work to do.

“I mean, we got to win,” Anthony Davis said. “Obviously, we got to hope that teams lose too as well. But we got to control what we can control and that’s winning basketball games by going out and competing every night.”

The Lakers will start this journey Thursday night at Crypto.com Arena against the Golden State Warriors, who are in the ninth spot in the West.

Then the Lakers hit the road for games at Dallas, Memphis and Oklahoma City, all teams ahead of them in the standings.

They return home to face Minnesota, the Warriors again and the Grizzlies again — all teams ahead of them in the standings.

With 23 games remaining in the regular season, the Lakers will have an opportunity to control their own destiny.

At 27-32, the Lakers need to post a 15-8 record the rest of the way to finish over .500 in the regular season.

Lakers center Mo Bamba exits the game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Crypto.com arena on Feb. 15.
Lakers center Mo Bamba (22) exits the game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Crypto.com arena on Feb. 15.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“I mean, we have to help ourselves first and foremost, and we only do that by winning games,” Ham said. “… We’ve already put ourselves behind the eight ball enough. We don’t want to get into a further situation where we’re depending on teams in front of us to lose games and all the while we’re dropping games. So, winning is the focus, and it’s the only way we can help ourselves.”

LeBron James, who was given an extra day off by Ham and wasn’t at practice Wednesday, had said Sunday before the All-Star Game that he is preparing for “23 of the most important games of my career for a regular season.”

Ham said he agreed with James, who was listed as probable for the Warriors game because of left foot soreness that the coach said the team is “still managing.” Ham also said the finger injury James suffered during the All-Star Game was “not an issue at all.”

“It’s what’s in front of him,” Ham said. “He’s done amazing things, had an amazing career — not just basketball, not just him in regards to our season, but just in life in general. That should be your mentality — what’s in front of you. How do we deal with what’s in front of you? That should always be the most important. Things that have happened in the past — yesterday’s gone. We can’t bring it back. Nothing we say, do can change anything about yesterday. Got to be in the moment and got to be looking forward at all times.”

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Jayson Tatum has a record 55 points to lead Team Giannis to victory over Team LeBron on Sunday night in the 2023 NBA All-Star Game.

Feb. 19, 2023

The starting lineup Ham used during the Lakers’ last game before the All-Star Game against the Pelicans featured James, Davis, D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley and is expected to become the norm.

For Russell, one of the six players acquired by the Lakers in the last month, playing with James and Davis is “so easy.”

“I’m probably going to say that every time and you can edit all the clips of me saying how easy it is to play with those guys,” Russell said. “But I never played with that talent and that experience at the same time.”

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