In no world should 13th place feel this good. Yet inside the Lakers’ practice facility on Saturday, there was an understandable sense of optimism from the Western Conference’s third-worst team.
While the Lakers have stumbled and stalled throughout the first half of the season, very few teams have found a consistent stride.
“We like the position we’re in,” Austin Reaves said Saturday. “We’re never content with where we’re at because you want to win every game, but that was really the message at the end of practice. Let’s go make a run and get a good spot.”
The Lakers have a chance to build some momentum, albeit against some good teams, with six of their next seven games at home. More importantly, things seem to be improving for the injured Lakersa group including Reaves and Lonnie Walker IV, and headlined by Anthony Davis.
“Lonnie is trending in the right direction, Austin is trending in the right direction, AD looked really good. He was out on the floor a little bit today,” coach Darvin Ham said. “So we’re right on course of what we want to get done in terms of getting them back in the lineup.”
It won’t be Sunday when the Lakers host Philadelphia and it almost certainly won’t happen Monday when they have the Rockets in the second game on back-to-back nights. But if the Lakers can continue to tread water, the middle pack of the conference is still so tight they’ll be in decent enough position.
By the time the Lakers left practice on Saturday, they were only two games out of the No. 6 spot in the conference. They were one game out of the play-in tournament, and with upcoming dates against Portland, Sacramento and the Clippers, there are real chances to make a move.
“If we can string a couple wins together — and I think we’ve been playing good basketball, even with some of the Ls that we’ve had,” LeBron James said. “As of late, over the last couple months. I feel like if we can continue to play the game like we’ve been playing it and then we get healthy, it will put us in a good position to see what the standings hold.”
The getting healthy part isn’t as complicated as it sounded a week ago.
Ham said Davis was able to do “minimal half-court” workouts as he continues to ramp up from a trio of foot injuries.
“Again, he’s moving well. He’s feeling well. And we’re excited,” Ham said. “He’s right where he should be according to the plan that was put down.”
Reaves has been doing individual on-court work with assistant Phil Handy as he nears a return.
“Multiple people I’ve talked to say hamstrings are tricky — it’s getting it to 100%,” Reaves said. “I want to play every game obviously. Sitting out isn’t fun. I was going absolutely nuts in the back of the Dallas game. But, it is what it is. It’s part of the sport, injuries are. Just trying to get it back to 100 and get back as soon as I can.”
Reaves last played Jan. 4 and is scheduled to be reexamined next week. Walker, who’s been out since Dec. 28, is also scheduled soon for reevaluation.
Patrick Beverley, who missed the last game because of an illness, is questionable Sunday against the 76ers.
“I mean, I always feel like we got a chance when we’re healthy. But that’s just… health is wealth. And that’s always been our thing,” James said. “So, I feel like if we can get fully healthy and we can get our guys back and then we can start playing in the games, logging minutes, doing what we’ve been doing over — I mean, since before Christmas break — I think we can string some wins together and be competitive against anybody.”
In the meantime, there’s still a growing faith in the fill-in players’ abilities to make a difference.
“I think the biggest thing that we’ve been doing is that I think we just no matter who’s been in the lineup the next guys have been absolutely ready,” James said. “No matter what game it’s been, no matter who’s been in and out. Injuries or illnesses or sicknesses, suspensions or whatever, next man has been ready to go. …
“Just think guys just have been locked in to a point where it doesn’t matter if you’re playing or not, whenever your number is called you’re ready to go.”
And the preferred destination — moving up the standings — might not be as impossible as it once seemed.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.