Darvin Ham’s Lakers prepare to be ‘the best version of ourselves’

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham opened his team’s final stretch of the season after the All-Star break by loudly declaring Los Angeles’ goal: The Lakers don’t want not just make the playoffs, they want to avoid the play-in tournament.

“The goal is for us to go out and try to be the best version of ourselves every game, but certainly if we can go for a place that’s our goal here,” Ham said. “If we fall into a game situation, so be it. But our No. 1 goal is to secure a place, not just to cancel games here or there. [and] just want a play-in. We want to secure a spot.”

The Lakers, 27-32, are currently 13th in the Western Conference — 2.0 games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the 10th seed and 3½ games behind the Dallas Mavericks for the No. 6.

If the last time the Lakers took to the field is any indicator of what to expect for the rest of the season, they should be in good shape. In their last game before the break, LA controlled the New Orleans Pelicans early on and won 120-102, excelling on both sides.

Still, time isn’t on the Lakers’ side, and that’s a major draw for a team that was completely overhauled before the trade deadline. They’re still so new they haven’t had a full practice with every player available to participate yet, as LeBron James was fired on Wednesday after showing up in Salt Lake City over the weekend as the only All-Star representative of the franchise other than two-way player Scotty Pippen Jr., who starred in the Rising Stars game.

There are 23 games left in the schedule, which James has already called 23 of the “most important games” of his career, but LA’s hopes of securing the No. 6 seed could be determined by how the Lakers get away with it in the first seven games after breaking it.

They host the No. 9 Golden State Warriors on Thursday, followed by a three-game road trip against Dallas (No. 6), Memphis Grizzlies (No. 2) and Oklahoma (No. 10). Their next three home games will be against the Minnesota Timberwolves (No. 8), Golden State and Memphis.

These are all games that essentially count as doubles, as LA can take a win and inflict a loss on a team ahead of them in the standings in each case. But losing one of them will also cost a lot more.

“I mean we have to help each other first and foremost, and we only do that by winning games,” Ham said. “We’ve already gotten behind the eight ball enough, we don’t want to find ourselves in an additional situation where we depend on the teams in front of us to lose games and all the while we’re losing games. So winning is the goal. And that’s the only way we can help ourselves and take care of what we can control.

D’Angelo Russell – who will remain in the starting lineup with Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley to complement James and Anthony Davis, according to Ham – believes the Lakers have an achievable goal.

“I think it’s possible, simple as that,” Russell said. “I think anything can happen when you have Bron and AD on the court and the supporting cast that we have. I think everyone has a chip on their shoulder. I mean, one game at a time is the mentality for us.”

But each of those games, Davis said, the Lakers just have to have.

“I think every game is a must-play game for us, given the situation we’re in,” Davis said. “So they’re all pretty important, and we have to treat every game that way. Think of it as Game 7. If we go out and compete at both ends of the pitch and do what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to give ourselves pretty good luck.”

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