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Lakers beat Jazz in finale, will host play-in game Tuesday

You could hear the Lakers players react to the final minutes of the games that would set their postseason destiny through the locker-room walls, yells echoing backstage at Arena after they capped their regular season with yet another win.

As coach Darvin Ham walked into the room next door, reporters watched the final seconds of the Timberwolves-Pelicans game on cellphones and computers, including one placed on the podium.

With the game in its final seconds, the Lakers’ future opponent about to be revealed, Ham pushed the laptop shut and began taking questions.

As it’s been for the previous 82 games, this was about the Lakers.

The other stuff wasn’t as important.

“It’s great, man,” he said. “Regardless of who wins, we’ll prepare accordingly.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham talks to LeBron James along the sideline during the fourth quarter Sunday.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The team now will have a chance to win its way into the first round of the playoffs in Ham’s first season, one step in his mission to re-establish the Lakers after they missed the postseason a year ago.

After his team fought to beat Utah 128-117 on Sunday afternoon, the Lakers eventually learned that their season would continue Tuesday night at home with a play-in-tournament game against Minnesota.

If the Lakers win, they’ll be the No. 7 seed in the West and face No. 2 Memphis. If they lose, the Lakers will host the winner of Oklahoma City-New Orleans in a single-elimination game with the No. 8 seed at stake.

Their postseason fate has been up in the air for the last few weeks with the Western Conference playoff race tighter than a wool sweater fresh out of the dryer. As of Saturday morning, more than 60 combinations for seeding in the West existed.

The Lakers, though, vowed not to get caught up in the permutations, focusing instead on controlling the schedule ahead of them.

The team began the season 2-10. The Lakers were six games under .500 after losing to Milwaukee on the night of the NBA’s trade deadline — a game D’Angelo Russell watched in street clothes after the Lakers acquired him earlier in the week. Since remaking their roster, the Lakers resuscitated their season. They finished the season winning nine of their final 11 games. Since Feb. 9, the game they lost against the Bucks, the Lakers have lost consecutive games just once.

The Lakers finished the season 43-39, their second-most wins in the last 10 years — the Lakers won 42 games in the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season.

Before beating Utah, the Lakers bolstered their playoff roster by signing veteran center Tristan Thompson and guard Shaquille Harrison while waiving guard Davon Reed.

Ham said the moves were insurance as they head into the postseason.

The fatigue from a month-plus of a playoff race is obvious, with players such as LeBron James, Austin Reaves and Russell among those battling injuries.

Sunday, the Lakers needed a big game from James to put away Utah. After flying to and from Portland on Saturday to watch his son Bronny play for Team USA in the Nike Hoop Summit, James made eight threes in 14 attempts against the Jazz to lead the Lakers with 36 points. Six other Lakers scored in double figures, including Anthony Davis, who finished with 16 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks and three steals.

“We put ourselves in a position where we can move on,” James said. “That’s all we asked for, to put ourselves in a position to move on. We obviously had a very, very slow start … starting 2-10. We had games that we could’ve won. We had games that we should’ve won. We had some things that didn’t go our way.

“So, to know where we are today, you can be happy about that but not satisfied. Like Coach always says, it’s time to fill our cups back up.”

Lakers guard Malik Beasley, right, tries to take the ball from Jazz guard Kris Dunn during the fourth quarter Sunday.

Lakers guard Malik Beasley, right, tries to take the ball from Jazz guard Kris Dunn during the fourth quarter Sunday.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The refill will need to happen quickly with Minnesota riding an emotional wave after a bizarre win in its game Sunday against New Orleans. Following wins by the Warriors in Portland and the Clippers in Phoenix, the Lakers were locked into facing the winner of the day’s most competitive game.

New Orleans led by as many as 14 in the second half, with the frustrations spilling over to the Minnesota bench. Center Rudy Gobert punched teammate Kyle Anderson during an argument, with the Timberwolves pulling Gobert from the game. Jaden McDaniels, another starter and one of the best defensive wings in the league, played only nine minutes after he punched a wall in frustration and reportedly broke a bone in his right hand.

The Lakers are far removed from that kind of drama, though the team has scuffled defensively down the stretch as its fatigue mounted.

“I, personally, haven’t been very good defensively the last couple [games],” Reaves said. “But at the same time, it’s been a long year. Everyone is a little tired. But you’ve got to fight through it. Thank God we have AD, you know, on the back line of the defense if you do get beat.”

James, too, mentioned the Lakers’ defense when asked about slippage in their play in the final week of the season.

Still, though, the team managed to win games to ensure it wouldn’t play any play-in games away from its home court.

The Lakers’ stated goal had been to play their way into the top six in the West, a fate they lost control of by losing to the Clippers on Wednesday.

Sunday, though, wasn’t a day with any real disappointment about that.

“It’s not about the action, it’s about the reaction,” Ham said. “And the way we reacted when we found ourselves facing adversity, we’ve been able to climb out of it and here we are. After starting 2-10 — 43-39.

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

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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