Never too high, never too low, coach Frank Vogel has navigated the Lakers through a wild two seasons with a consistent calm, his true emotions mostly guarded.
“This is a tiebreaker game,” he said before Friday night’s game at Portland. “It counts twice.”
The stakes are unusually high, the Lakers not only playing for seeding but for security. Stay in sixth place in the Western Conference and you’re guaranteed a crack at defending your NBA title in the playoffs. Slip to seventh and two straight losses means it’s all over before the title defense even gets started.
It was close — the Lakers were within a single possession in the final minute, but missed shots and questionable defensive strategy sunk them in a 106-101 loss and, more importantly, in the standings.
“It’s tough, man,” Lakers forward Anthony Davis said afterward. “It’s a tough loss for us. … It hurts.”
The Lakers are now a game behind the Trail Blazers and because Portland has won two of the team’s three meetings, the Lakers will lose any tiebreaker.
With five games left, they’re now in seventh place in the West.
If the Lakers do indeed slip into the play-in tournament, they will enter with a healthy, respectful awareness of its suddenness.
“I’m unafraid of the play-in tournament with this team. I feel like we can beat anybody, but we definitely want to finish in the top six,” Vogel said before Friday’s game. “ There’s just too many things that can happen in a one-game series.”
Take Friday, for instance, with Andre Drummond largely ineffective in part because of foul trouble that he never could shake. Luckily against the Trail Blazers, Marc Gasol was a good matchup, the veteran center giving the Lakers game-changing minutes early.
And then there are injury possibilities. Alex Caruso’s status was questionable entering the game because of a bruised right foot, and before the game, even when clearing Caruso to play, Vogel said it might be too painful for the Lakers’ last standing point guard to continue.
Caruso started — and played maybe his best game of the year. While he and the Lakers’ offense turned the ball over eight times in the first quarter as Portland built a double-digit lead, the Lakers didn’t cough it up once in the second and third quarters as they fought back to take a lead before the Trail Blazers regained some control.
Caruso scored a season-high 18 points, helping organize the offense enough for a very aggressive Davis, who had 36 points and 12 rebounds.
“It’s a very encouraging sign,” Vogel said of Davis, calling his performance “terrific.”
But there wasn’t room for any mistakes, and the Lakers made just enough. Davis somehow defied physics with a two-handed slam dunk, not by gracefully flying through the air but by slamming it through the rim in a way in which it popped out just before it went through the net.
The Lakers’ Anthony Davis, who had 36 points and 12 rebounds, drives against the Trail Blazers’ Carmelo Anthony during the first half. (Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)
And the bad luck became an opportunity for the Trail Blazers — Damian Lillard predictably hitting a deep three on the very next possession.
It was the kind of fight necessary for the Lakers to compete without Dennis Schroder and LeBron James, their backcourt and playmaking further decimated with Talen Horton-Tucker missing his second-straight game with a calf strain.
And while the Lakers haven’t ruled out James Sunday against Phoenix at Staples Center, they certainly haven’t ruled him in either. Vogel said they hope to know more Saturday.
“We just wanted to get through these games, knowing he’s going to be out this one, and we’re really, literally evaluating things on a day-to-day basis and trying to figure out as his ankle progresses,” Vogel said before the game. “How much do we want to get him in there for rhythm and timing versus potentially agitating the ankle, you know what I mean? So it’s just something we’re evaluating every day.”
Without James, the Lakers are in trouble (his words), whether it’s the play-in tournament or not. But if the Lakers are close to being right, Davis said he’s ready to welcome the challenge.
“I mean, we don’t look at it as something bad. To be honest, we need a lot of games, we need games to get back accustomed to each other, anyway,” Davis said after Thursday’s loss to the Clippers. “So, I mean, if it happens that way, it happens that way. Obviously, we don’t want to go that route. But if it happens, it happens. … Like I said, we know the type of team that we are.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.