Lakers begrudgingly embrace reality of play-in game

LeBron James ruled out for Tuesday's contest against the Knicks
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With only four games left in the regular season, at 38-30 the Los Angeles Lakers appear locked into the No. 7 seed.

That means Los Angeles will have to compete and win a play-in game to get into the playoffs and defend their NBA title.

The Lakers trail the No. 6 seed, the Portland Trail Blazers (40-29) by 1.5 games and the No. 5 seed, the Dallas Mavericks (40-28) by two games heading into Tuesday’s matchup with the New York Knicks.

Both the Blazers and the Mavericks own the tiebreaker over the Lakers by winning the season series.

“This is the predicament we’re in right now, whether it’s continuing to fight for the sixth spot or the play-in,” Lakers swingman Kyle Kuzma said. “We’ve just got to keep in mind it’s all about getting healthy and competing right now.

“We’re trying to win games when we’re out there. If the chips fall where they fall, and we’re in the play-in and have to play a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, we’ll see how it goes.”

Added guard Alex Caruso: “I’m really just focused on the next game at this point. I’m fairly confident we’ll be in some kind of playoff, whatever it is. Hopefully, we don’t have to play in the play-in because we win a couple of these games down the stretch, that’s the goal and that’s the plan.”

Regardless if Los Angeles is in the play-in game or earn the No. 6 seed, the Lakers need to figure out a way to get healthy. LeBron James (right, high-ankle sprain) and Dennis Schröder (health and safety protocol) remain out. However, James appears close to returning, with the possibility of playing on Wednesday in L.A.’s final home game of the regular season against the Houston Rockets.

With the unlikely possibility that the Lakers moved up to the No. 6 seed, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel acknowledged that his decision to take a conservative approach, making sure James gets enough rest to come back as healthy as possible, has been made easier.

James participated in practice for the Lakers on Monday, including a short, full scrimmage. James will not play tonight against the Knicks. However, Vogel said he came through the practice with no setbacks.

“It really comes down to just evaluating where we are at on a daily basis where he’s at,” Vogel said. “How his ankle is feeling, how his workouts are going, but also where are we at in the standings.

“Obviously, if we get locked into No. 7, maybe it does make some of those decisions a little easier and we can just focus on what’s best for his return to play program. We want him to get as much play, with rhythm and timing, without agitating the ankle, as possible. It’s a delicate balance, but it obviously gets complicated if games are must-wins.”

Vogel said the earliest Schröder can return is Saturday’s game on the road against the Indiana Pacers, which remains a possibility.

“He’s still engaged in what we’re doing,” Vogel said “We’re really still hopeful that he can return for the final two games of the season, or one of those final two games, to get a little bit of run before we enter playoff play. He limited, obviously, with what he can do from a conditioning standpoint, but we’re just trying to make the best of it.”