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‘Hell of an opportunity’: Lakers earn play-in shot at playoffs

The crowd at Arena stood as one and roared while the clock ticked off the final seconds of a Lakers season that began with doubt and despair and ended with an invigorated team that earned more wins than anyone would have dared to guess.

The buzz built as the Lakers pulled away for a 128-117 victory over the Utah Jazz on Sunday afternoon to lock up seventh place and a date Tuesday with Minnesota in the NBA’s contrived but dramatic play-in tournament. D’Angelo Russell encouraged the joyful noise, lifting his arms toward fans and asking for more cheers. They happily obliged, appreciating a team that clawed its way up from the depths to win nine of its final 11 games, reach a season-best four games above .500 (43-39), and seize a chance to keep going.

For the 17-time NBA champion Lakers, built around all-time scoring leader LeBron James and a forceful (when healthy) Anthony Davis, earning a play-in spot could be considered a comedown. Yet considering they couldn’t even crack the top 10 last year and earn a play-in berth — and that they began this season a rudderless, clueless 2-10 with glaring personnel issues before general manager Rob Pelinka remade the roster — this was a valid reason to celebrate.

The team that was booed off the court earlier this season exited to applause Sunday, and deserved it. Rookie coach Darvin Ham, whose rotations and lineups were often savaged in the first few months of the season while he was handcuffed by a poorly constructed roster, could finally smile.

“Obviously, you would like to secure your [playoff] position but things don’t always fall your way,” Ham said. “But it’s not about the action, it’s about the reaction and the way we reacted when we found ourselves facing adversity. We’ve been able to climb out of it and here we are.

“It’s a hell of an opportunity before us, facing us and we’re up for it wholeheartedly.”

James, whose game-high 36 points was his 25th game this season of scoring 30 or more, summed it up neatly. “We put ourselves in a position where we can move on,” he said. “That’s all we asked for, to put ourselves in a position to move on.”

It won’t be easy: if the Lakers win at home on Tuesday, they’ll be the West’s No. 7 seed and will face Memphis. If they lose on Tuesday, they’ll have to get past the winner of the Oklahoma City-New Orleans game to earn the No. 8 seed on Friday.

So you’re saying there’s a chance?

“Since the trade deadline, I think we’ve played some of the best basketball in the league,” guard Austin Reaves said. “We’ve actually not been that healthy. We’ve had Bron out at points, had AD out at points and [Russell]. So if we’re whole and healthy, we like our opportunity.”

They were heading nowhere, disjointed and too often disinterested on defense, until Pelinka made his moves. His biggest deals were acquiring Rui Hachimura from Washington for Kendrick Nunn, and adding D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt in a three-way trade with the Timberwolves that sent Russell Westbrook (and his turnovers) out the door.

The newcomers brought a new fire, new skills and were better fits with James and Davis.

“I think energy is powerful. We came in with some good energy,” Russell said. “Obviously, the past was the past here and the energy wasn’t where it should have been. To get wins in this league is hard, to get wins when everything is not firing on all cylinders.

Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell shoots a three-pointer over Jazz guard Ochai Agbaji during the game Sunday.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“So, for us we just wanted to come in and control our energy, because that’s one of the only things that we can control at this level. So, come in with that positive vibe and try to make it contagious for the group that obviously may have been a little traumatized from before.”

On Feb. 7, before the Lakers played at Oklahoma City, guard Dennis Schroder said they’d have to win 19 of their final 28 games to keep their championship hopes alive. He wasn’t joking.

“That’s our mindset,” Schroeder said that day. “I think when we do it as a team and we play together, play defense and are on the same page on the defensive end then it gives us a chance to win against anyone. We showed it before. We just got to execute it, do it for 48 minutes and if we do that, we’ll be really hard to beat. And we had a couple of meetings about it and hopefully it starts today or tonight to be on the same page on the offensive and defensive end and win some games now.”

He wasn’t far off: They were 18-10 down the stretch.

There are two ways to look at this Lakers season: to condemn the front office for miscalculating the initial roster, or praise them for finally getting it right. At least right enough to get the Lakers into a play-in game and prolong their season.

“I just think the sky’s the limit, man,” Ham said. “We’re going to go as far as our work and preparation take us, and health, first and foremost. I think if we’re healthy and we get the team to pay attention to detail and continue to alleviate mistakes that may be a little repetitive and sustain the things we’re doing well, I think sky’s the limit.”

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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