The Lakers arrived at their practice facility Tuesday and took a team photo.
They will begin to know on Wednesday if those smiles can last.
The game against the Phoenix Suns in Los Angeles kicks off the final 10 of an up-and-down season, one in which optimism has slowly grown over the past month despite the team never reaching .500.
In a normal season, that might signal some kind of moment to start running, the starter’s pistol firing a second time to signal the last lap. This season, Game 72 is just another must-win.
While the game against Phoenix is important, so is Friday’s game against Oklahoma City. And the two with Chicago and the games in Minnesota, Houston and Utah, plus the one with the Clippers and two at home to end the season against the Suns and Jazz.
With the play-in and playoff races So tight, the Lakers have needed to approach the past month with a sense of urgency.
Having only 10 games left shouldn’t change that.
Coach Darvin Ham said this prolonged drive has not left his team noticeably mentally fatigued. He has mostly seen the opposite.
“It has caused them to come to the game on high alert and with a lot of awareness,” he said. “Just having something to play for. You’d be surprised how comfortable guys are with that instead of having to play some pointless game. I think the fact that these games carry so much weight is causing our guys to pay more attention. I don’t see any stress. I only see guys who figure it out because they want to be a part of this team, make it to the postseason and run.
“So stress, anxiety, I don’t see that. My coaching staff and I talked about it this morning, they don’t see that from our players. I see a little hunger.”
If you’re looking for a date the Lakers “push” began, February 11 is a start. That was the first game after the trade deadline when the team’s new acquisitions became available. In the 16 games this version of the Lakers has played, the Lakers have won 10 times even though LeBron James played only three times.
Ham said Tuesday there are no changes for the Lakers on the injury front. As for the game plan against the Suns, it’s clear.
It is also the one they will have nine more times after Wednesday.
“You know, going out and trying to be the best version of ourselves like always. I’m just looking to continue to build on what we’re doing very well and try to change and alleviate what we’re not doing so well,” Ham said. “Against that team, our defense has to be sharp. We can’t take them out at the free throw line and we have to keep an eye out for them in transition. And we have to hold them to a 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. Have a really high level of ball security. It allows us to get the kind of shots we want to get. And just to constantly love and live in painting.
“But (it’s not) just Phoenix, that’s our message going forward, regardless of who we play.”
However, the reality is that it’s not just about who the Lakers play against, but how the teams they compete against perform. And that is changing almost every night.
It means that the Lakers can only have one focus.
“If we’re not prepared, if we’re not focused on how we can be the best version of ourselves, taking advantage of 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 about how we can be better at these key arenas and these key segments of the game, then we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’ll be able to go any further. this regular season,” Ham said.
“So a lot of the focus has been, definitely taking a look here and there in qualifying, but the key focus has been on us getting better and better every day.”