Stakes are clear for Lakers: Beat Pelicans and win 8th spot in West

Finally, the stakes are perfectly clear.

Sunday, in their last game of the season, the Lakers can win their way out of the back half of the NBA’s play-in tournament, a spot where they could face a horror-movie fate — Stephen Curry in a win-or-go-home game.

A win Sunday in New Orleans against the Pelicans, who helped the Lakers by beating those Golden State Warriors on Friday, would guarantee the No. 8 seed in the West and the two chances to win their way into the playoffs that come with it.

“Every game matters,” LeBron James said after scoring 37 points in 41 minutes Friday. “Every seed matters.”

The only way the Lakers (46-35) can finish 10th is with a loss Sunday coupled with wins by Golden State and Sacramento (both 45-36). The Lakers could lose and end up ninth if either the Warriors lose at home to Utah or the Kings lose at home to Portland. If the Warriors, Kings and Lakers all lose, the Lakers will be the No. 8 seed.

The Lakers survived Friday in Memphis, winning 123-120 against a team with 13 players shelved because of injuries despite a sloppy game full of turnovers, suspect perimeter defense and uneven defensive rebounding.

They won’t have those luxuries against the Pelicans, who have won four straight and are fighting to stay in the sixth spot with Phoenix hoping to steal it with a win Sunday.

“They got a lot of weapons on both sides of the floor. And we have to be able to play the right way,” Anthony Davis said after returning to the lineup with 36 points and 14 rebounds. “We can’t play how we played tonight, the turnovers and letting them get offensive rebounds and sloppy play. They’ll take advantage of it.”

The Lakers, regardless of Sunday‘s outcome, will wrap up the season with some milestones.

James will end it with averages of more than 25 points, eight assists and seven rebounds — unmatched numbers for a player in Season 21. His 71 games will be the most he has played in a regular season since 2018, his final season in Cleveland.

Davis is set to play his 76th game Sunday — the most he has played in a season.

Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell tries to cut off a drive by Grizzlies guard Zavier Simpson on Friday night in Memphis.

Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell tries to cut off a drive by Grizzlies guard Zavier Simpson on Friday night in Memphis.

(Brandon Dill / Associated Press)

Austin Reaves will play in all 82 games, one of 17 players to do that this season. In that group, only Brooklyn’s Mikal Bridges and Sacramento’s Domantas Sabonis are averaging more minutes.

“We’re at the point of the year I think everybody’s tired, everybody’s got some type of bump, bruise somewhere,” Reaves said at shootaround Friday. “But you fight through it, all fight for one common goal.”

And then there’s D’Angelo Russell, who already established the Lakers’ record for three-pointers in a season. He has slumped the last three games, and Friday he looked more passive than he has since a stretch in December that ended with coach Darvin Ham moving him to the bench.

“Just encourage him to stay aggressive,” Ham said. “I’m not worried about his confidence. He’s a guy that constantly goes back to the work floor and works on his game. And I expect him to do the same. But just encourage him to stay assertive, stay deliberate, stay aggressive.”

Getting him to that place is critical.

“When DLo plays well, we all play well,” James said. “When DLo is aggressive, we feel pretty good about that. So he’ll find his shot. We’re not worried about that.”

It helps that guard Gabe Vincent had his best game since returning from knee surgery, finishing a plus-27 off the bench Friday thanks to his defensive intensity.

“Gabe’s a winner. It’s that simple,” said James, who scored six straight points in the fourth quarter to help seal the win over the Grizzlies. “And as he continues to get his legs up underneath him, hopefully he has enough time, hopefully we continue to give him enough time to get his legs up underneath him. But he’s a winner. That’s why we brought him on.”

The stage is set for the Lakers to make their move. Win on Sunday and they’ll have two chances in the play-in tournament to make the first round of the playoffs, where they fought their way to the conference finals a year ago.

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