One of the nightmare NBA playoff scenarios for the league is a postseason without its biggest star, LeBron James. That is precisely the situation the league faces though if the Los Angeles Lakers end up in the NBA Play-In Tournament and lose back-to-back games.
There is still a chance that the Lakers can avoid the Play-In games and go right to a full first-round series. They would need a little help in the final few regular-season games to make this happen.
Friday night, they may have got the help they needed from an unexpected but maybe unsurprising source: NBA referees.
Lakers injuries have put them on the playoff bubble
The Lakers started the 2020-21 NBA season great. They had their two stars, James and Anthony Davis, playing together and playing well. They had young guys like Kyle Kuzma and Talen Horton-Tucker ready to step into more significant roles. And, they had offseason acquisitions such as Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder there to upgrade the squad from last year’s championship team.
The Lakers started the season looking primed to defend their title. They jumped out to a 6-2 record and into first place in the Western Conference. The team would continue to bounce around the top three spots in the conference through February.
On February 16, the Lakers got some bad news. Davis went down with an injury and would go on to miss 30 consecutive games. Without their big man, the Lakers’ losses came faster, but with James still playing well, coach Frank Vogel’s team remained solidly in third.
Then, on March 16, the news for the Lakers got even worse. James suffered a high ankle sprain. He would miss 26 out of the next 28 games. Without their two best plays, Los Angeles’ losses mounted, and on May 7, they fell to seventh in the conference: Play-In Tournament territory.
Referees made a controversial call in the Portland Trail Blazers’ game versus the Phoenix Suns
On Friday night, the Blazers played the penultimate game of their regular season against the Phoenix Suns. Sitting in sixth place in the Western Conference with two games to play, Damian Lillard’s team controlled their own destiny to stay out of the Play-In Tournament if they could win out.
The game was close throughout and, with 34 seconds left, Lillard hit a clutch layup to put the Blazers up by 117-114. The Suns would cut the lead to one and, on the final possession, the Suns got the ball to their star guard, Devin Booker. The former Kentucky Wildcat threw up a wild, leaning, elbow jumper as time was about to expire.
Booker missed the shot, but the referee’s whistle blew. The referee called a foul on Portland. Replays showed that Booker wasn’t touched on the shot, and Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts challenged the call.
Somehow, the foul stood.
Booker made both free throws, the Suns won the game, and the gap between the Portland and Los Angeles shrunk.
This Trail Blazers loss could send them to the Play-In Tournament and the Lakers to the playoffs
The Blazers’ loss keeps the Lakers alive with a chance to avoid the Play-In Tournament. With Dallas winning their game against the Raptors and solidifying their spot in the playoffs, only the fates of Los Angeles and Portland remain entirely undecided.
If the Lakers can beat the Indiana Pacers on Saturday, who need to win to get into the preferable 7/8 Play-In game, they will tie the Blazers’ record with one game each to play. If both teams win or lose and end in a tie, Portland wins the head-to-head advantage tiebreaker.
The issue is, the Lakers face the lottery-bound New Orleans Pelicans in their last game while the Blazers face the Denver Nuggets, which need a win to stay at No. 3 in the West. This could mean a late-season rebound for the Lakers that guarantees them at least one playoff series.
The Lakers in the playoffs is an outcome that the NBA would surely like, and if it happens, Los Angeles will have a few referees to thank.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference