LOS ANGELES — Long before the midseason trade that changed everything for the Los Angeles Lakers. Before Russell Westbrook dabbled as a sixth man and jawed with coach Darvin Ham at halftime the night LeBron James became the NBA’s career scoring leader. Before Anthony Davis was lost for 20 games with the kind of foot injury that has ended the careers of other big men. Before James was lost for 13 games with a foot injury he needed a doctor of LeBron Jamesian skill to mend.
Before Dennis Schroder and James’ joint ice-water-in-my-veins salute after a clutch corner 3-pointer in Tuesday’s 108-102 comeback overtime win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in the play-in game at Crypto.com Arena for the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference playoffs … there was another corner 3-pointer that put the Lakers in position to somehow stay in contention this season.
That was hit by a guy named Matt Ryan way back on Nov. 2, when the Lakers were about to fall to 1-6 on the season and every conversation in the league seemed to revolve around when the team might implode.
“Man, that feels like five years ago,” Ham told ESPN. “We’ve really been through a lot this season.”
Ham drew up an out-of-bounds play that called on Austin Reaves to throw the ball over the top of the defense, across the court to find Ryan –then the team’s only capable 3-point shooter — for a catch-and-shoot fall-away 3-pointer from the corner to tie a game against the New Orleans Pelicans. It was an impossible pass and an impossible shot. But that’s kind of how this Lakers season has gone: rescued from the brink just when all hope seemed lost.
“When we went 2-10, the analytics side gave us a 0.3% chance of making the postseason,” James said after scoring a game-high 30 points in 45 minutes Tuesday. “For us to turn around our season, for us to have an opportunity to compete for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, that’s all you can ask for.”
Perhaps fittingly, Ryan was in the building Tuesday night — as a member of the Timberwolves. At shootaround in the morning, he went to the spot and reminisced.
“To me that shot felt like yesterday,” Ryan joked before the game. “It was probably the biggest shot of my career.”
It was big for the Lakers in the short and long terms, too. At the time, it eased the pressure just enough to survive the tumultuous beginning of the season. In the standings, it was the difference between hosting Tuesday’s game and being on the road.
And the Lakers needed every bit of their home-court advantage as Tuesday night’s game turned into a microcosm of the season. The Lakers started out slowly, allowing the undermanned Timberwolves to build an 11-point halftime lead despite missing their best two defenders — Jaden McDaniels (hand) and Rudy Gobert (team suspension).
Karl-Anthony Towns befuddled them, scoring 17 points in the first half on 5-for-5 shooting with six rebounds and four assists. Mike Conley was every bit the veteran leader Minnesota hoped he’d be when he was acquired at the trade deadline, scoring 11 of his 23 points on perfect 4-for-4 shooting in the first half.
The home crowd grew uneasy waiting for the Lakers to find their way as the visitors’ lead ballooned to 15 midway through the third quarter.
The Lakers had rallied from 13th in the Western Conference standings at the All-Star break to seventh by playing through Davis — who was named the conference player of the month for March and April earlier in the day — yet seemed to completely forget how to do that in the most important game of the season.
“We’ve got to be able to move [Davis] around, and that falls on my staff and I,” Ham said afterward. “Because they’re coming, any isolation he’s going to get double-teamed.”
Indeed, the Lakers had just seen the LA Clippers adopt a similar approach to defending Davis in a loss last week that ultimately cost them a top-six playoff spot and forced them into this play-in tournament.
Which means they’re sure to see a similar defensive approach from the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies starting Sunday.
Schroder’s shot near the end of regulation gave the Lakers a 98-95 lead with 1.4 seconds remaining. It seemed for all the world to be a game winner.
But Davis fouled Conley as he closed out on a corner 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds remaining. Conley nailed all three free throws as the Lakers and their dazed home crowd fell in silence.
It was the kind of moment that could’ve sunk them. But the Lakers have lived through enough of those moments this season to know how to move through them.
“Some of the huge disappointing losses that we experienced early on, whether it was a defensive breakdown, whether it was an unfortunate foul … it’s totally uncomfortable when you are in the moment and going through those things,” Ham said. “But you have to find a silver lining in things, whether it’s basketball, major sports in general and life.”