Even more daunting: They have the fourth-toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, according to ESPN Stats & Information projections.
So for LeBron James, it’s time to turn on the afterburners, so to speak.
“It’s been activated,” the Lakers star said after Wednesday’s practice, talking about playoff intensity as the team got set to host the Houston Rockets on Thursday.
James has made eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances and has reached 13 consecutive postseasons — and in many of those instances, his teams lived toward the top of the standings for much of the season, with there never being a doubt that they would reach the playoffs. And often, James was able to save energy down the stretch of the regular season for what he hoped would be a deep playoff push that ended in June.
Now, the situation is much different for a Lakers team that has underperformed and struggled with injuries, suspensions and uneven play in the grueling Western Conference.
“Obviously, we would have loved to have success when I was out, but we didn’t, so this is where we [are] right now,” said James, who missed 18 games after suffering a groin injury on Dec. 25. “I’m going to be a little bit different a little bit earlier than I would like to be in previous years.”
The Lakers have missed the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, their longest postseason drought in franchise history.
“That’s the job, that’s our goal,” James said of making the playoffs. “It’s been our goal from the beginning of the season, and it’s still our goal. We’re working our tails off to get there.”
Meanwhile, James said he couldn’t remember the last time he has had to make such a hard regular-season push at this point in the season.
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The last season James was involved in any kind of a late-season race just to make the playoffs was more than a decade ago, in 2004-05.
That’s when his Cleveland Cavaliers actually dropped from third place in the Eastern Conference standings entering the All-Star break to missing out on the playoffs due to a tiebreaker, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.
“My level of intensity has to be [high], unfortunately for me, because I don’t like to do it at such an early time,” James said.
James later added, “I’m all about being uncomfortable. I love being uncomfortable. I fall in love with being uncomfortable. This is another uncomfortable thing for me, and I love it.”
But James is confident that if the Lakers can reach the playoffs, they can make an impact no matter which team they face.
“Yeah, I mean if I can get to the postseason, whatever team I got, I feel like we’ve got a good chance,” James said. “Obviously, you want to be playing at a high level going into the postseason and try to ride that wave, so we’re looking forward to seeing how well we can play and try to get into the playoffs and ride the momentum of how we played to get there.”
There is a careful balancing act for the Lakers, though. James has proved his ability to carry teams throughout his career, but at 34 and with considerable mileage on his legs, there is obvious concern that the load could be too heavy and might lead to another injury.
“We know we have who we view as the best player in the world on our team,” said Lakers head coach Luke Walton, “but we also know that it takes a team to win.
“So, we expect him to lead us, and we expect the other guys on the team to continue to make plays and help us win games. This league is too tough to do it by yourself, so we feel confident and believe in the guys that we have, and it’s going to take a full group effort in this final stretch.”
Walton also said his role in managing James’ minutes and health won’t change moving forward.
“We have a pretty open dialogue about when to get him out, what we’re trying to do,” Walton said. “What we’re trying to accomplish, so it will be no different from my end.”
Given the Lakers’ current standing, guard Josh Hart said the team can’t hold anything back in its efforts for a playoff push.
“We just got to go out there and play basketball,” Hart said. “Whether that’s [James] going out, if he has to go out and get 40 [points] and 10 [rebounds] and 10 [assists] and averaging a triple-double for us, he’s capable of doing that. Obviously, we’d like to kind of limit that, save some of that for the playoffs.
“But right now, the biggest thing is we can’t be too conservative. We can’t be like, ‘OK, we got to be like save certain things for the playoffs.’ Right now, we’re fighting. Every game is important to get to the playoffs. So, every game is the most important game, and we just got to get through it.”
For his part, James said he feels fine.
“I feel pretty good where I’m at physically,” he said. “I’m rounding third base, sliding into home on how I felt before the injury, and I’m sliding in clean too.
He smiled and later added, while rolling his eyes, “I feel pretty good even at 280 pounds.”
James, listed as 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, was responding to a comment made by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst on Friday on The Hoop Collective podcast, referencing the weight James seems to have gained while sidelined for more than a month with a groin injury.
“Word on the street is that LeBron is 280 right now,” Windhorst said. “I mean, he carries it well.”
Others disputed the weight, estimating that James is closer to 260.