LOS ANGELES — The Lakers arrived Tuesday at their practice facility and took a team photo.
They’ll begin to know Wednesday if those smiles can be lasting.
The game against the Phoenix Suns in Los Angeles begins the final 10 of a wildly up-and-down season, one in which optimism slowly built over the last month despite the team never reaching .500.
In a normal season, that might signal some sort of moment to begin to sprint, the starter’s pistol firing for a second time to indicate the final lap. In this season, Game 72 is just another must-ish win.
While the game against Phoenix is important, so is the one Friday against Oklahoma City. And the two with Chicago and the games in Minnesota, Houston and Utah, plus the one against the Clippers and two at home to finish the season against the Suns and Jazz.
With the play-in and playoff races so tightly packed, the Lakers have needed to approach the last month with a sense of urgency.
Having only 10 games left shouldn’t change that.
Coach Darvin Ham said this extended push hasn’t left his team mentally fatigued in any noticeable ways. He’s mostly seen the opposite.
“It’s caused them to come to the game on high alert and high awareness,” he said. “Just having something to play for. You’d be surprised how comfortable guys are with that as opposed to having to play a meaningless game. The fact that these games carry so much weight, I think, is causing our guys to lock in more. I don’t see any stress. I just see guys figuring it out because they want to be a part of this team getting into the postseason and making a run.
“So the stress, the anxiety, I don’t see that. My coaching staff and I, we talked about that this morning, they don’t see that from our players. I see a bit of hunger.”
If you’re looking for a date when the Lakers’ “push” began, Feb. 11 is a start. That was the first game after the trade deadline when the team’s new acquisitions were available. In the 16 games this version of the Lakers has played, they Lakers have won 10 times despite LeBron James playing only three times.
Ham said Tuesday there’s no change for the Lakers on the injury front. As far as the game plan against the Suns, it’s clear.
It’s also the one they’ll have nine more times after Wednesday.
“You know, to come out and just try to be the best version of ourselves as always. Just looking to continue to build on what we’re doing great and try to change and alleviate what we’re not doing so great,” Ham said. “Against that team, our defense has to be sharp. We can’t out them on the free-throw line and have to be aware of them in transition. And we have to hold them to one possession. … And then on the other side of the ball, just to make sure that we’re giving ourselves a chance on the offensive end by being disciplined in our running habits and taking care of the ball. Having a really high level of ball security. It allows us to get the type of shots that we want to get. And just to constantly love and live in the paint.
“But [it’s] not just Phoenix — that’s our message going forward regardless of who we play.”
The reality is, though, it’s not just whom the Lakers play — it’s how the teams they’re racing against perform. And that’s changing almost nightly.
It means the Lakers can have only one focus.
“If we’re not prepared, if we’re not focused on how we can be the best version of ourselves, pulling in different moments, and not-so-good moments, good moments, from these previous games and putting them together and looking at them under the categories that we’ve been emphasizing all year to how we can be better at these key scenarios and these key segments of the game, then we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re gonna be able to advance beyond this regular season,” Ham said.
“So a lot of the focus has been — definitely taking a sneak peek here and there at the standings — but the key focus just has been for us to get better and improve every day.”