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Lakers’ bold first step into the NBA playoffs is a stumble

LeBron James doubled over in exhaustion. Anthony Davis twisted around in pain. Darvin Ham stared blankly in disbelief.

It shouldn’t have been this hard. It shouldn’t have been this taxing. This should have been a two-foot putt. This should have been a gimme.

The Lakers’ play-in game Tuesday night against the decimated and distracted Minnesota Timberwolves should have been a bold first step into a bright postseason.

It was, instead, a staggering stumble into the great unknown, a night requiring extra time, exhausting effort and the overcoming of one massive mistake.

It was one long grind and, man, it was hideous.

The Lakers won 108-102 in overtime to clinch the seventh seed in the Western Conference and advance to the first round of the playoffs beginning Sunday at second-seeded Memphis, but …

The season’s loudest Lakers crowd at Arena ended the night on its feet while letting loose with a roar that nearly drowned out “I Love L.A.” And yet …

Ham talked glowingly about resilience and James talked about emptying the tank and Davis even smiled while soaking his aching feet in a bucket of ice, but still …

The truth is, the Lakers won’t win anything playing like this. They won’t survive a seven-game series against hardened Memphis, or experienced Golden State, or loaded Denver.

An honest assessment is, the Lakers should not view this win as a coronation — from 2-10 to the playoffs, hooray! — but as a warning. The road ahead only gets tougher, and they need to find the strength and smarts to better navigate it, or this will be one short spring indeed.

“When we were 2-10, the analytics guys said we had a 0.3% chance of making the postseason,” James said, later adding, “And for us to turn around our season and give ourselves a chance to compete for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, that’s all you can ask for.”

That’s one way to look at it. Another way is, past great Lakers teams would have ripped through a postseason game like this, pouncing on a weakened opponent and never letting loose. This is not one of those teams. At least not yet.

“Once you get to the end of things to have everyone healthy, to be playing the type of rhythm we’re playing in and at the level we’re defending at going into the most important time of the year, you can’t ask for a better situation,” Ham said.

Again, that’s one way to look at Tuesday night. Another way is to cover your eyes.

The game began with the Timberwolves missing two of their best defensive players after a Sunday regular-season finale that coach Chris Finch called “wreckage.”

Center Rudy Gobert punched teammate Kyle Anderson and was suspended for a game. Forward Jaden McDaniels punched a wall, broke his hand and is out for the season.

“When you have an opportunity in your own building to take care of business, what’s right in front of you, you need to seize the moment,” Ham said Tuesday before the game.

Yet for much of the game the moment seized them, the Timberwolves outhustling and outworking the Lakers, taking a 15-point lead in the third quarter, not surrendering their edge until Dennis Schroder broke a tie by sinking an open three-pointer with 1.4 seconds remaining.

And that should have been the heroic finish, right? That would have made it all better, correct? Ah, but it wasn’t, and it didn’t.

On the final play of regulation, Minnesota’s Mike Conley somehow found himself wide open in the corner and threw up a no-chance three-point attempt just as a charging Davis stepped on his foot and knocked him down.

Davis had been out of position. He paid the price with a foul. Conley made three free throws.

Crazy. Needless. Overtime.

“I had a brain fart,” Davis said.

The Lakers continued a fine second-half defensive effort in the extra period — Minnesota had gone nearly eight minutes in the fourth quarter without a basket — and strongly closed out the game with gasps and hugs, but the numbers weren’t so cozy.

Davis was slowed by a neck stinger, a hip check and Timberwolves double teams, scoring 24 points with five turnovers, not nearly as dominant as he needs to be while playing in his season-high 13th straight game.

D’Angelo Russell blinked hard under the brighter lights, making only one basket amid nine shots, finishing with just two points and reduced minutes. Austin Reaves wasn’t much better, connecting on four shots and one three-pointer, finishing with a dozen points.

What saved the Lakers were two things, only one of which can be counted on in the future.

First, they had James, wearing his finest armor, plowing through defenders and providing momentum to score 30 points and grab 10 rebounds while playing 45 minutes that clearly emptied him.

“It’s playoff intensified … diving for loose balls, take charges, run guys off the line, trying to keep your body in front of them, you’re rebounding, assisting,” James said. “You’re basically just taking the gas tank down to E and trying to refuel as much as you can, see if there’s a reserve tank.”

Second, they had a referee’s whistle that blasted hard on Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves’ leading scorer picking up his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter with Minnesota ahead by 10. He was never again the same player, and his team was outscored by 16 the rest of the game.

Give the Lakers credit for taking advantage of Towns’ restriction and holding the Timberwolves to 16 total points in the fourth quarter and overtime.

“Always find a way to make one more play, one more steal, one more block out, one more rebound, get one more stop — that’s what we did in overtime,” James said.

But the question is whether the Lakers can continue to win this way, trailing by double digits to a team with no interior defense, blowing a comeback with a loss of focus by their big man, nearly playing their way out of a play-in game.

After being asked about his game-changing trey, Schroder was brought back to earth when asked how they can play better in the playoffs.

“Yeah, we’ve got to figure that out,” he said.

Which is, really, the only way to look at it.

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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