For the last several weeks, the Los Angeles Lakers have made it clear that they do not want to be in the play-in tournament — they want to bypass it by finishing sixth in the Western Conference.
They had an opportunity to get closer to that goal on Wednesday when they faced the Los Angeles Clippers, who started the night in sixth place. But they fell short, 125-118; they couldn’t do anything about the Clippers’ hot outside shooting.
As a result, the Purple and Gold are seventh in the West with a 41-39 record and a full game behind the sixth-place Golden State Warriors.
Luckily, the Lakers still have a pathway to the sixth seed. It isn’t ideal, but it is still very possible.
The Lakers must win both of their remaining games
This is the most important component of the pathway. LeBron James and company must take care of business, just like they have, for the most part, since the Russell Westbrook trade.
Since the players acquired in that deal debuted, the team is 16-8, which is one of the best records in the league during that span.
The Lakers will have a very difficult game on Friday against Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns, who are on a six-game winning streak. However, if the Suns have clinched the fourth seed by then, there is a chance they may rest at least some of their key players against L.A., which would make its task easier.
It will then wrap up the regular season on Sunday afternoon at home versus the Utah Jazz, who it barely defeated on Tuesday. It should be capable of defeating them without any real difficulty, as it ran up multiple double-digit leads against them the other night.
The Warriors must lose one of their two remaining games
This is the tricky part, as the Warriors will want to fight to stay out of the play-in tournament.
They will face the third-place Sacramento Kings on Friday, a game that will tip off about half an hour before the Lakers-Suns contest. With the Kings seemingly locked into the third seed, it remains to be seen how badly they will want to defeat Stephen Curry and company.
Luckily for the Lakers, this contest will take place in Sacramento, and Golden State has been pitiful on the road this season. Furthermore, the Kings lead the NBA in scoring, and Golden State ranks 28th in defensive rating on the road.
This would be its best chance of losing a game; its final regular-season contest is at the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that has nothing to play for other than more ping-pong balls in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.
If the Warriors lose a game and the Lakers win both of theirs, the two squads will finish the season with 43-39 records. However, the Lakers hold the tiebreaker thanks to a 3-1 advantage in the season series, which would give them the sixth seed.
Even better, if the above events take place, and the Clippers, who are currently 42-40, lose both of their remaining games against Portland and Phoenix (which seems very unlikely), the Lakers would finish fifth in the West.