Lakers confident they can make playoff history

The Lakers beat the odds to make it to the playoffs and West Finals. They will have to make history to get to the NBA Finals.

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — As he tossed and turned in his bed late Saturday night, Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham struggled to shut his eyes completely.

He kept having flashbacks of the Lakers’ loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals earlier that evening. He kept reviewing footage. And he kept thinking about the Lakers hosting the Nuggets in Game 4 on Monday at in a possible elimination game.

Yet, Ham insisted he did not become restless because of the daunting task with overcoming a 0-3 series deficit. Instead, he maintained he stayed up late because he felt empowered about the opportunity.

“When you got work in front of you that you do that you’re excited about, it’s a beautiful thing,” Ham said following practice on Sunday at the Lakers’ facility. “You don’t want to sleep. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

Nothing compares to actual mortality, obviously. The Lakers, however, have approached the basketball equivalent of nearly being on their death bed. No NBA team in league history has ever overcome an 0-3 series deficit. Three have forced an actual Game 7 before losing the series. Otherwise, all 149 teams that have faced an 0-3 series deficit have eventually ended their season early.

Other professional sports leagues have produced some rare success stories. Four out of 204 NHL teams have overcome an 0-3 series deficit, including the Los Angeles Kings’ first-round victory over the San Jose Sharks in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. The 2004 Boston Red Sox became the lone Major League Baseball team to accomplish the feat after defeating the hated New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. So why can’t the 2024 Los Angeles Lakers join the select few in professional sports?

“It’s 0-3; it’s not 0-4. That’s what I’m going to stand by,” Lakers guard Lonnie Walker IV said. “I’m going to stand by how our teammates are and the capabilities that we have as well. For sure, we’re down. But we’re not knocked out yet. We’re going to keep fighting until there’s one last breath.”

After all, the Lakers insisted that none of those 149 NBA teams that failed to make league history have their talent and resiliency.

The Lakers labored through a 2-10 start and fell to 13th place in the Western Conference amid Anthony Davis struggling with injuries, Russell Westbrook struggling with fit and the whole team struggling with depth. Through those times, the Lakers stayed competitive while LeBron James still played at an elite level in his 20th NBA season. Once the Lakers dealt Westbrook and upgraded positional needs mostly at the point guard (D’Angelo Russell), wing (Rui Hachimura) and front-court positions (Jarred Vanderbilt), the Lakers finished with the league’s third-best record (18-9) and second-best defensive rating (110.8).

The Lakers then overcame a 15-point deficit to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves in the play-in tournament. The Lakers then dispatched the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors in six playoff games by relying on James’ elite skills, Davis’ defensive dominance and the team’s tireless role players.

“We wouldn’t have gotten this far if we weren’t all on the same page and thought the same thoughts in terms of our approach and how we respond and ways we can bounce back,” Ham said. “We’ve got a room full of strong men, players, staff members and the whole entire organization. We didn’t come this far to start disbelieving now.”

The Lakers outlined various tangible reasons to make them feel optimistic.

James has shown signs of fatigue, has favored his left ankle and has shot a combined 15.8% from 3-point range through three games against Denver. Yet, the Lakers sounded encouraged about James sharing optimism about the team’s fortunes in various text messages on the team’s group chat. Ham also cut off a line of questioning about James’ health and durability considering he still has averaged 23.7 points, 10.3 assists and 9.3 rebounds per contest against Denver.

“There’s no concern with LeBron James, at all,” Ham said. “No concern with LeBron James. He’s going to be there ready to rumble.”

The Lakers held out hope that Russell will do the same. After the Lakers acquired him before the trade deadline, Russell instantly bolstered the team’s offense with his shooting and playmaking, which also opened up space for James and Davis to operate. After shooting well against Memphis (43.5%, 37.2% from 3) and against Golden State (45.6%, 31% from 3), however, Russell has fared poorly against Denver (29.6%, 14.3% from 3). Ham also sat Russell for the final 8:36 in Game 4. Yet, Ham defended Russell’s shot selection and defensive effort, while Lakers guard Austin Reaves expressed clairvoyance on when Russell’s shooting slump will end.

“We’re super high on him,” Reaves said. “We keep preaching to him to be himself. I’m pretty positive we’ll see a good side of D-Lo tomorrow.”

The Lakers are also pretty positive they’ll continue to see Reaves’ good side. He has averaged 22.7 points while shooting 55% from the field and 56.5% from deep along with 6.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds. The Lakers have valued his season-long consistency as an aggressive scorer, playmaker and defender. But Reaves has improved significantly compared to his output against the Grizzlies (16.5 points on 44.7% shooting and 34.4% from deep, 5.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds) and against the Warriors (14.3 points on 41.8% shooting and 45.2% from 3, 4.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists).  

“Any time you have action with LeBron or AD, if I was a coach, I would tell the guys to be more worried about them, too,” Reaves said. “But I’m just trying to play the right way, shoot the ball when I’m open, make passes and just playing the right way. Coaches and players have confidence in me to make shots and make plays. It’s just about playing a good brand of basketball.”

To ensure that good brand of basketball, the Lakers had what Ham called “a great film session” during Sunday’s practice. That gave the Lakers additional comfort they could address various issues.  

They believe they can trim the turnovers (12) and fouls (18) they collected in Game 3. They vowed to show better effort with reducing the Nuggets’ fast-break points (19) and offensive rebounding advantage (11-5). Though they conceded it will be inevitable that Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray will leave a positive imprint on the game, they held out hope they can reduce their impact by playing more physical on pick-and-roll coverages and for setting sharper screens to get both of them in foul trouble.

“When we’re playing defense, they can’t be passing how we want to pass or getting to the lane for however they so please,” Walker said. “When we bring physicality on to the game, we’re a pretty good team.”

Lastly, the Lakers became further convinced that their predicament has less to do with strategy and more to do with effort.

Maybe the Lakers change a starting lineup that has featured Vanderbilt, Russell and Reaves to complement James and Davis in the past two games. Perhaps Ham no longer features three-guard lineups to account for the Nuggets’ height advantage. Nonetheless, the Lakers remain comforted that their first two losses came down to single digits (six in Game 1; five in Game 2). The Lakers loss by 11 in Game 3 only after the Nuggets closed the game out with a 23-14 run.

“Sometimes the greatest adjustment is just to play better,” Ham said. “Play harder and play better. As simple as it sounds, sometimes that’s the most key adjustment.”

Will that adjustment be enough to win Game 4, let alone the series? The Nuggets have cemented the Western Conference’s best record for a reason. They have a two-time MVP (Jokic), a promising young point guard that recently overcame an season-ending ACL injury (Murray), plenty of depth (Michael Porter Jr, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown) and a proven head coach (Michael Malone). The Lakers’ current roster has only played fully together for three months under a first-year head coach.

Nonetheless, the Lakers still advanced to the Western Conference Finals appearance three years after winning an NBA title in the bubble, two years after losing in the first round and one year after missing the playoffs entirely. Even if the Lakers fail to collect an NBA-record 18th championship, they appear at least motivated to avoid ending their season with a loss on their home court in front of supportive celebrities and home-grown fans.

“It’s a very real thing,” Ham said. “It’s a prideful group, being highly competitive that cares and wants to go and put on a good show for our fans as well. Our fans, Lakers nation, supports the hell out of us. We have to do our part, show up and show out.”

To ensure that happens, expect Ham to stay up late on Sunday night more out of excitement than out of stress.

“I’m having a good time, actually,” Ham said. “It sucks to have this deficit. But the opportunity to continue to move forward, until that’s no longer available, I’m excited about the opportunity.”

Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.