LOS ANGELES (AP) — Near the end of what he once referred to as the most important regular-season stretch of his career, LeBron James was able to briefly savor one thing many thought was going to be near impossible after 12 games.
The Los Angeles Lakers will have a winning record in the regular season.
The Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns 121-107 on Friday night for their 42nd win to guarantee a finish over .500. That was only a dream in early November when Los Angeles stumbled out of the gates with a 2-10 record.
“I was just telling AD (Anthony Davis), ‘Can you believe we’re going to finish this season above .500 after everything that has gone on this season?’ We turned this thing around in the regular season,” James said. “There’s more basketball to be played, but to know that we’re going to finish a few games above .500 is pretty cool.”
According to Sportradar, the Lakers (42-39) are only the fourth team since 1981 to start 2-10 or worse and finish with a winning record. The New Jersey Nets did it twice (1981-82, 2004-05) while the Chicago Bulls beat the odds in 2004-05.
Los Angeles was able to accomplish its turnaround despite James and Davis being in the same lineup for only 35 games.
James missed 27 games, including a four-week stretch from late February to late March because of right foot soreness.
Davis was out for 26 games, mostly because of a right foot stress injury. He has missed only two games, though, since Feb. 1.
The Lakers have won five of their last seven since James returned to the lineup on March 26. They didn’t get over .500 until a 12-point win at Minnesota on March 31, the 77th game of the season.
“We are playing extremely well. The guys did an unbelievable job when I was out. The games that I played (since returning), I just try to do my part,” James said.
The biggest catalyst to the turnaround was the trade deadline, when the Lakers reset their roster. They acquired guards D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley, forward Jarred Vanderbilt and center Mo Bamba, along with trading Russell Westbrook.
The Lakers’ 17-9 record since the Feb. 9 trade deadline is the second-best mark in the Western Conference.
“It’s been a real good group. There’s a lot at stake and on the line that we have no choice but to improve,” Davis said. “Our practice has been games and we’ve been able to figure out things on the fly.”
Russell led the Lakers with 24 points and Beasley scored 21 in the win over the Suns. Austin Reaves also has emerged as an integral player, averaging 17.8 points since the All-Star break.
The Lakers’ main goal going into Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Utah Jazz is trying to get into the top six and avoid the play-in tournament. They are seventh in the West and need help.
Going into the final day, the Lakers could finish as high as sixth or as low as eighth.
To get the sixth seed, the Lakers need to win and Portland to beat Golden State. The only way they don’t get to six with a Portland win is if New Orleans beats Minnesota and Phoenix defeats the LA Clippers.
Los Angeles would be seeded eighth with a loss to Utah. There is one scenario where the Lakers would also be No. 8 if they won coupled with victories by Golden State, New Orleans and Phoenix.
Coach Darvin Ham’s main priority is trying to make sure his team gets some rest during what has been a late-season grind. Sunday’s game will be their fourth in six days, with the possibility of a play-in game on Tuesday or Wednesday.
“We have to do what we need to do to make sure we have the proper energy, the proper rest, care, making sure we’re taking care of our guys and their physical issues,” Ham said. “I just think the stakes being what they are is really going to ramp up our guys.”
Even with the off day, James was in Portland on Saturday watching his son, Bronny, take part in the Nike Hoops Summit. James smiled when asked about taking the trip and said something that sums up the last month:
“There’s no rest for the weary, you know?”
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