By Don Wanlass
Nothing has come easy this season for the Lakers so getting into the NBA Playoffs wasn’t going to be any different.
But just like they did after starting the season with a disastrous 2-10 record, the Lakers dragged themselves out of a 15-point third-quarter hole April 14 to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves, 108-102 in overtime to win the Play-in Tournament game and advance to the playoffs.
It sure wasn’t pretty. The Lakers turned the ball over 20 times and shot only 41.3% from the field while playing with a lack or energy and urgency in the first half.
A late 14-2 run by the Timberwolves gave them an 11-point halftime lead that quickly increased to 15 points in the third quarter.
It was about that time that Lakers’ coach Darvin Ham decided he had seen enough of D’Angelo Russell bricking outside jump shots — Russell missed eight of nine shots — and inserted Denis Schroder into the lineup.
Schroder played with an energy that was infectious and scored 21 points. He hit what would have been the winning basket, a three-pointer with 1.1 seconds left on the clock, but then Anthony Davis fouled Mike Conley, who was shooting a desperation three-point shot with 0.1 left on the clock.
Conley calmly sank all three foul shots to force overtime. But the Lakers had enough left in the tank to win the game, outscoring the Timberwolves 29-16 over the last 17 minutes of the game.
LeBron James led the way with 30 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists. Davis had 24 points and 15 rebounds and Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura each scored 12.
The Lakers now advance to face the Memphis Grizzlies in a seven-game series that begins April 16 at noon on Channel 7.
The Grizzlies won eight more games than the Lakers on the season, finishing second in the Western Conference behind Denver. But the Lakers won two of the three meetings during the regular season and come in with a healthier team.
The Grizzlies are missing starting center Steven Adams and reserve forward Brandon Clarke due to injuries.
They have one of the more dynamic young players in the league in Ja Morant, who averaged 26.2 points and 8.1 assists per game this season. Shooting guard Desmond Bane averages 21.5 points a game and power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. averages 18.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3 blocked shots per game.
Former Clippers guard Luke Kennard comes off the bench and hits three pointers just like he did with the Clippers.
But despite their better record, the Grizzles come into this series as an underdog as far as Las Vegas is concerned.
With James and Davis the Lakers have more firepower than the Grizzlies, but playoff series are often decided by how the rest of the team performs. Outside of James and Davis, the Lakers don’t have a lot of playoff experience.
What they do have is momentum. They ended the season winning nine of their last 11 games. Since Feb. 11, they have the best record in the Western Conference and only the Milwaukee Bucks have a better overall record since then.
And they have James, who has four NBA titles to his credit and is anxious to win a fifth.
I don’t think the Lakers are going to win the NBA title this year, but I expect them to defeat Memphis in the opening round, setting up a second-round series with the winner of the Sacramento-Golden State series.
TOUGH OPPONENT: The Clippers finished fifth in the Western Conference, two places higher than the Lakers, but they have drawn a tougher opponent in the first round.
The Clippers face the Phoenix Suns in a best of seven series starting April 16 at 5 p.m. in Phoenix. TNT will broadcast the game.
Many people feel the Suns have the best roster in the Western Conference, especially with the addition of Kevin Durant in February.
Durant and Devin Booker give the Suns one of the best one-two scoring punches in the NBA. Then you add center Deandre Ayton, who averages 18 points and 10 rebounds a game, point guard Chris Paul, who averages 13.9 points and 8.9 assists a game, and the Sun have a lot of firepower.
They had to give up some important pieces, like Mikal Bridges, to acquire Durant so they may not have the depth that the Clippers do, but the Suns are healthy.
The Clippers are still without Paul George, who is recovering from a knee injury. The Clippers are hoping that George will be able to return sometime in the playoffs, but they are expecting to be without George against the Suns.
Since snapping a five-game losing streak against the Memphis Grizzlies March 5, the Clippers have gone 11-5.
Russell Westbrook is a better fit with the Clippers than he was with the Lakers. In 21 games with the Clippers he has averaged 15.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 7.6 assists, although he still turns the ball over too often.
His shooting percentages with the Clippers are at 48.9% over all and 35.6% from three-point range, both much better than he shot for the Lakers.
He against Chris Paul will be a key matchup in the series. Kawhi Leonard has always stepped up for the playoffs and he needs to bring his teammates with him.
The winner of this series will have a good chance of playing in the conference finals.
DODGER DOLDRUMS: Two weeks into the season, the Dodgers are a .500 team. With eight of their first 10 games against the Arizona Diamondbacks that isn’t how the Dodgers expected to start the season.
In 19 meetings between the two teams last year, the Dodgers were 14-5. After eight meetings this season, the Diamondbacks have already equaled last season’s win totals after winning three out of four games in Phoenix last weekend.
The Dodgers have been inconsistent so far. Julio Urias, Clayton Kershaw and Dustin May have pitched well at the top of the starting rotation but Noah Syndergard and Michael Grove both got shelled by Arizona over the weekend.
And the bullpen has been shaky, to say the least. Relief pitchers have given up 20 runs in only 40 innings of work. Even the usually reliable Evan Phillips gave up three runs April 11 in a 5-0 loss to the Giants.
Offensively, the Dodgers are hitting a lot of home runs and striking out too often.
Max Muncy had a big night April 10 with two home runs and 7 runs batted in, but he has only two other RBI for the season and has struck out 17 times in 11 games.
Trayce Thompson hit three home runs and drove in eight runs in the third game of the season. He has one RBI since.
Rookies James Outman and Miguel Vargas are exceeding expectations and Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Will Smith are doing what is expected at the top of the lineup.
It’s way too early to panic, but the Dodgers need to right the ship as the 6-4 Chicago Cubs come to town for a three-game series starting April 14.