Russ: Lakers face ‘must-win’ with Pels closing in

Russ: Lakers face 'must-win' with Pels closing in thumbnail

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    Dave McMenaminESPN Staff Writer

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    • Lakers and NBA reporter for ESPN.
    • Covered the Lakers and NBA for ESPNLosAngeles.com from 2009-14, the Cavaliers from 2014-18 for ESPN.com and the NBA for NBA.com from 2005-09.

LOS ANGELES — As competitive as the LeBron James-less Lakers looked in Wednesday’s 126-121 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, the defeat only raised the stakes for their next game on the schedule, on the road Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans.

L.A. currently at No. The Pelicans are currently No. 9 in the Western Conference standings, with nine games remaining. 10.

Sunday’s game could fortify the Lakers’ lead, helping their path toward hosting the Pelicans in the 9-10 play-in game. It could also make the Lakers the team playing from behind, desperate to hold onto the final play in spot and be rewarded by going on the road to play it.

“It’s going to be a playoff-type of atmosphere for us because it’s definitely a must-win, I believe, for our group,” said Russell Westbrook, who had 24 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and seven turnovers in James’ absence against the Sixers.

James was unable to play Wednesday due to soreness in his left leg. He will be able to rest for six days before the New Orleans game.

If he feels well enough, he will be there. L.A. will attempt to maintain the momentum it has generated, going 2-2 in its last four games. The Lakers have found an offensive groove in those four games, dishing out 25 assists or more in all of them.

“We’re making progress,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We are building habits that will win for us in postseason.” We’re still growing. We lost this game. However, without Bron and without [Anthony Davis],, the group that played tonight showed that we still have a lot of fight left in our hearts. “

The last time L.A. played New Orleans, with James in the lineup, the Pelicans blew the Lakers out by 28. It was part of L.A.’s post All-Star break slump, when it went 2-9 — with four of those losses coming by 20 points or more — and struggled to find any sort of footing.

But the minor upswing the Lakers are on — beating Toronto and Cleveland on the road and playing Washington and Philadelphia down to the wire — has the team keeping its head up.

“I’m never going to give up,” said Dwight Howard, whose 24 points on Wednesday marked the most he has scored in a game since Nov. 16, 2018. “I don’t think anyone feels that the season is over. We will do everything we can to make it a success. It hasn’t been the season we all wanted. It took us a long time to find our groove, but we have no choice but to keep fighting and stay positive. “

Losing to New Orleans would mean that L.A. is closer to being eliminated from the play-in tournament. The Lakers are only two games ahead of No. 11 San Antonio after the Spurs beat the Portland Trail Blazers 133-96 on Wednesday. The Spurs still have two games against the Blazers.

This will be an extended play in, in essence, to reach the actual play-in tournament for the Lakers team.

“Hopefully our group’s collective playoff experience will pay off for us,” Vogel said of the task ahead.

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