The Lakers were aiming for 19 wins for a very specific reason.
It was early February, the morning before LeBron James broke the NBA all-time record, when teammate Dennis Schroder set it up.
With 28 games left in their season, Schroder said the team’s mindset was to win at least 19 — that would be the number the Lakers would need to make the playoffs.
Days later, the roster was reshuffled and soon the Lakers began playing some of their best basketball games of the season.
They won 18 more games, one just short of their goal.
And that’s why they had to be right next to them on Tuesday night before the playoffs with a younger, hungry, looser Minnesota team.
Another win anywhere in the season would have meant the Lakers were tied for No. 6 in the Western Conference. Maybe with a whistle in Boston, a free throw taken in Philadelphia, better rotations against Indiana or Dallas — all of that and the Lakers wouldn’t have been in that position.
I need another win
So of course it needed another comeback.
“That’s one thing we were very good at,” James said.
Trailing 15 into the second half of their play-in game, the Lakers rebounded and looked like they had won Schroder’s three-point shot by 1.1 seconds. But Anthony Davis fouled Minnesota’s Mike Conley with a three, and the veteran guard sent the game into overtime with three free throws.
Just like the Lakers’ season, however, the slow start wouldn’t define them, the team overcame the late error and possessed overtime to advance to the playoffs with a 108-102 win.
“It felt like the playoffs,” said James, whose leg cut required post-game dressing in the dressing room.
James scored 30 points and had 10 rebounds in over 45 minutes. Davis scored 24 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, and Schroder, filling in for the struggling D’Angelo Russell, finished the game with 21 points.
James looked exhausted in overtime, bending at the waist and gasping for breath as the Lakers looked for ways to win despite his five turnovers and three points overall in the fourth quarter and overtime. But they came to a tie three with 2:02 left in regulation, and much of the Lakers’ success on the stretch had to do with his rebounds, hustle plays and defense.
‘They’re taking the gas tank to E and trying to see if there’s a spare,’ said James. “…You can always find a way to make another move.”
It is the Lakers’ third trip to the playoffs in the past decade, all three coming under James’ tenure. The Lakers will open the first round against the Grizzlies Sunday at 12 p.m. PT in Memphis.
Minnesota scored just 12 points in the fourth quarter and four in overtime when the Lakers came back. It ended much better than it started.
“We had problems early on,” said coach Darvin Ham.
Coming out flat offensively and disorganized defensively, the Lakers were rolled over by a badly wounded Timberwolves team with better energy and execution.
While the Lakers struggled through to a win in their regular-season finale on Sunday against Utah, Minnesota imploded in a game with New Orleans that decided whether the Timberwolves would be the eighth or ninth seed in the west.
First, Jaden McDaniels, one of the NBA’s best and most versatile fullbacks, broke his hand when he slammed into a wall in frustration. Later in the first half, All-Star center and former Defenseman of the Year Rudy Gobert lashed out at teammate Kyle Anderson during a time-out.
Gobert was sent home from the game and banned.
With no two starters, Minnesota rallied and won that game, with star big man Karl-Anthony Towns carrying the load offensively while guard Anthony Edwards made the biggest defensive plays.
“We have fighters,” Minnesota coach Chris Finch said with a laugh ahead of Tuesday’s game when asked about his team’s resilience.
And unsurprisingly, the Timberwolves were the team to swing first.
The Lakers missed 10 of their first 11 shots, Russell starting the series of misses with an adrenaline-pumping three-point shot. He only had two points against his former team despite having eight assists.
Minnesota quickly caught fire, Towns and Taurean Prince, starting for McDaniels and shooting threes to gain early momentum in a back-and-forth game. Minnesota finished the quarter with five straight points and led by 10 points early in the second before the Lakers made a push.
Minnesota went on a 14-2 run to finish the half, forcing the Lakers to make a surge after falling 11 behind at the break.
This entire season has been a comeback for the Lakers, however, the team working back from a 2-10 start to ensure crunch time is played in the play-in tournament on their home soil.
Towns, who played the entire court all night without Gobert being available, recorded his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter and opened the door for the Lakers.
Davis started the comeback and quickly scored a three-point game that started under the rim. James topped it off, hitting a three from a Rui Hachimura screen and tying the game at 95.
With the tie and less than seven seconds left, James drove the baseline, skied and in the last second blasted the ball into the corner where Schroder was in front of the Minnesota bench.
But Win 19 would have to wait. Minnesota found Conley open in the far corner and Davis’ challenge on the shot was too close, his feet landing right in Conley’s landing area to send the game into overtime.
Hachimura hit a three in the first game of overtime to restart the Lakers. The Timberwolves went almost half the period without a goal and Prince missed a potential three-pointer with 12 seconds left.
More than two months after saying the Lakers would need to win 19 games to make the playoffs, they finally got there.
“We’ve been trying to get forward all season,” Ham said.
Eventually, two Schröder free throws iced it up, the hill climbed now, with the playoffs ahead.
“We took care of business,” James said. “And we made progress.”