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Newsletter: Notes on the Lakers’ odd couple and the wait for an opponent

Lakers guard Rajon Rondo dribbles against the Warriors.
Lakers guard Rajon Rondo.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Hi, this is Tania Ganguli, Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, here with your Lakers newsletter.

A few days ago, I saw LeBron James point up into the stands before a game and holler toward someone. That person was Kurt Rambis, a senior advisor for the Lakers. Several teams’ owners and executives have visited Florida without being placed inside the bubble. They have access to games through what the league calls “Tier 2,” or the “yellow” zone (because their credentials are yellow). When James stood on the court and said hello to Rambis, Rambis was behind a plexiglass barrier.

I describe that interaction because it highlights the lengths to which the NBA has gone to reduce the exposure of players to people who are outside the bubble.

But Rambis’ presence here is interesting for another reason.

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He’s been working with Rajon Rondo as Rondo prepares to return to the bubble.

“It’s the odd couple, the two of them working out every day,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.

We don’t have details about what kinds of workouts they’ve been doing. Rondo injured his right thumb about a month ago and required surgery outside the bubble. He returned to Florida last week for a seven-day quarantine, during which he has been tested every day.

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Rondo will then enter the bubble for another quarantine period inside his room before he can join his team.

Before Rondo’s injury, the Lakers lacked depth at guard, and his absence highlighted that weakness. It could become a very important pressure point in the next couple of weeks.

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The race for the eighth seed

The NBA’s plan to make the race for the eighth seed in the playoffs as fair as possible seemed confusing at first. Many people in the bubble — players and coaches alike — still don’t exactly know the rules. But it has become a fascinating race.

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The first step will be taken today, when Portland, Memphis, Phoenix and San Antonio — the four teams still in contention — will play. That’s the order the teams are in now, and each has taken an interesting path to get where they are.

Portland spent the season recovering from injuries and figuring out the right way to use its personnel. The Trail Blazers rose into the eighth seed behind a 61-point performance from Damian Lillard on Tuesday night. Pretty much everyone in here agrees that Portland is not a typical eight seed and could cause problems for the Lakers. There were even some conspiracy theories floating that other teams were trying to help Portland so the Lakers would have to face them.

Phoenix has won its first seven games in the bubble behind a group of young players who seem to have taken a step in their maturity during the hiatus. They returned just wanting to play basketball — and to an environment without any distractions. Adding to the comfort level, they also have been using a video for their home-game introductions in which players’ family members announce the starting lineups.

Memphis has struggled in the bubble. The Grizzlies entered in eighth place and have lost all but one game here. The team’s problems are what have made this race so compelling.

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San Antonio planned to use this time for development, but has been winning in the process anyway.

Among these teams, the top two, who will be in eighth and ninth place, will participate in a mini play-in tournament. The eighth seed must only win one of two games. The ninth seed must win twice to rise.

This is all creating a headache for the Lakers, who must prepare to face all four teams right now. We asked Vogel if he was able to enjoy the race, despite having to watch it critically while he prepares his team.

“I haven’t really focused on enjoying it or not,” Vogel said. “I’ve been kind of just studying if we play this team, these are the challenges. And that’s how I watch each of those opponents.”

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“I guess the answer is no,” he said.

Since we last spoke ...

  • With only one another as their own cheerleaders, the Lakers topped the shorthanded Clippers in their bubble opener.
  • This isn’t Lakers-related, but a nice story nonetheless. Former UCLA athletes Jrue and Lauren Holiday, who are married, have decided to donate Jrue’s salary from playing in the bubble to the Black business community and historically Black colleges and universities. They both have also committed to speaking out more about racism they see.
  • The Lakers clinched the top seed in the West. After the game, James shared with me just how much this meant to him.
  • In that game, Anthony Davis rebounded from a lackluster showing with a 42-point performance.
  • The Thunder blew out the Lakers, and James shared a few thoughts about what has made this experience a bit uncomfortable. It’s part of why he changed his shoes during the game.
  • Against the Rockets, the Lakers rested LeBron James and decided to see what kind of success they’d have with a smaller lineup.
  • When the Lakers were 2-4 in the bubble, my colleague Broderick Turner took a look at reasons to panic — and reasons to not panic.
  • The Lakers offense has not been good in the bubble. Part of that might be about their comfort level; part of it might be about the unusual rotations they’ve been trying. But it is something they’ll need to figure out.
  • Kyle Kuzma hit a game winner against the Denver Nuggets. Denver did not play its full rotation in that game, but the Lakers still appreciated getting a win. It gave them a welcome emotional boost.
  • I wrote this Column One about life for players, for coaches and for me in the NBA bubble The reunions, the surveillance, the medical checks, the wine. It’s all in there.
  • James said the Lakers weren’t completely playoff ready. But he doesn’t think they should be at this point.
  • Kuzma has earned the trust of the Lakers’ locker room. He thinks it’s at a different level than before the hiatus.

Until next time...

As always, pass along your thoughts to me at tania.ganguli@latimes.com, and please consider subscribing if you like our work!


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