Perhaps later in May, the Lakers will regret what happened on Thursday.
Then, they will be part of the NBA Draft lottery, where the odds for the correct ping-pong ball combination will determine two scenarios. Either the Lakers will land another Top 3-protected pick or they will surrender a pick of fourth or lower to Philadelphia as part of the ill-fated Steve Nash trade five years ago.
Because of how the draft lottery system works, the Lakers’ 122-110 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday at Talking Stick Resort Arena could influence the odds of the Lakers’ having the ping-pong balls bounce their way.
The Suns (21-44) trail the Lakers (20-45) by one game for the NBA’s second-worst record, giving the Lakers a 55.8 percent chance of retaining their pick and a 19.9 percent likelihood of having the No. 1 draft selection.
Though the Lakers still have plenty of games to lose to give them further cushion against the Suns, such a game arguably could tilt the difference. If the Lakers finish with the NBA’s third-worst record, they would have relatively slimmer odds of keeping the pick (46.9 percent) or landing at No. 1 (15.6 percent).
The Lakers have downplayed whether they are fine with winning forgettable games in March even if it potentially costs them landing a player the caliber of UCLA’s Lonzo Ball in June.
“That’s going to play itself out in the end,” Lakers coach Luke Walton. “No matter what happens, it’s still going to come down to the luck of the balls type of thing. My job is to coach these guys to get better. So we’re going to continue to do that and try to win every time we play.”
The players hardly embrace losing, considering the arrival of another lottery selection could disrupt their roles or careers. But once the Lakers took a 106-92 lead after forward Larry Nance Jr. dunked off a lob from Corey Brewer, one Lakers fans near press row remarked something during the ensuing timeout that probably represents a certain percentage of the fan base’s sentiments.
“I’m fine with winning this game,” the fan said, “so long as we lose the rest of our games this season.”
In the meantime, the Lakers showed some growth during what’s been a mostly dreary season.
The Lakers had what they considered a focused and spirited team shootaround, ending with D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle beating Walton and Lakers associate coach Brian Shaw in a 3-point shooting competition. Later Thursday, the Lakers ended an eight-game losing streak and an 11-game losing streak in Phoenix – their longest road losing streak in series history.
“It’s important for the spirit of the guys,” Walton said. “We can always find moments in the game to show what we look like when we’re playing well and when we’re playing bad.”
After stumbling through most third quarters this season, the Lakers opened the second half aggressive and efficient as they outscored the Suns, 29-18. The Lakers showed the offensive balance the coaching staff craves with D’Angelo Russell (28 points), Jordan Clarkson (19), Brandon Ingram (14), Ivica Zubac (14), Julius Randle (13) and Nance (13) all involved.
Russell spearheaded the Lakers’ third-quarter charge with 10 points by finding his shot, attacking the basket, setting up teammates and huddling them up. After calling Russell “the head of the snake,” Ingram pointed to Russell’s play as “a big part of why we won.”
“I tried to come in the game with a different mentality and play at my pace and limit turnovers,” said Russell, who had none in 34 minutes. “That’s what it takes to win. I feel like I try to rely on a lot of other people to talk. I look up and I’m not even talking. I try to be the first to start that.”
Ingram exerted his aggressiveness with two dunks. That included throwing down a one-handed slam over 7-foot-1, 265-pound Phoenix center Alex Len. Shortly after Walton praised Ingram for jumping over defenders instead of working around them, Clarkson told Ingram at his locker “it was about time he started attacking.” Ingram has done the same thing during recent pre-game warmups.
“It helps me feel comfortable in games,” Ingram said. “I’m just reading the defense and going in and trying to have an effect by attacking the rim. I didn’t know how long I was at the beginning of the season.”
And while Randle (2 for 3) and Nance (1 for 2) showed their 3-point range, Zubac showed his mid-range game, going 7 for 13 from the field. While it’s not clear if Walton was joking when he said Zubac would play for the D-Fenders against Fort Wayne on Friday, Walton is serious about eventually starting him at center. That’s when Zubac plans to show his range even more.
“I could shoot since I know myself,” Zubac said. “You saw in the D-League I was shooting (3-pointers). I can do it. I can shoot it outside. It’s just a matter if I’m going to get the ball there or if the guards are going to guard me high or zone down there. When I get my chance, if I’m wide open for a three or the guy is in the middle of the paint, I will let it fly.”
On a night when their development was easier to see, they did hurt their lottery chances. But the Lakers hardly seemed interested in hearing about that reality, not after a rare, satisfying victory.
“We don’t worry about those things,” Ingram said. “We continue to play each and every day and try to get wins. That’s good for us. I don’t think we want to start the summer thinking about next year. Let’s start now and see if we can build this team and build the process. Let’s keep it going.”