After Thursday night's 25-point win, the Los Angeles Lakers have won eight straight games at home and 12 of the last 16 games overall. At the moment, the Lakers rank as one of the top two hottest teams in the NBA over the past 16 games.
Beating Oklahoma City twice in the same week has the Lakers only six games behind the Thunder in the loss column, and Oklahoma City is sitting at no. 5 in the Western Conference. After Thursday night's games, the Lakers sat 5.5 games back of eighth place and 7.0 games back of fifth place. Currently holding onto the no. 8 seed, the New Orleans Pelicans expect to drop like a rock to the bottom of the ocean following the season ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins.
Add in a home-heavy end of the season for the Lakers, where the team plays 14 of its final 25 games at STAPLES Center following the All-Star break, and the idea of a playoff berth, all of a sudden, does not sound entirely insane. When the Lakers sat at 11-27 on Jan. 5, speaking of a trip to the playoffs could have landed a fan or analyst into an insane asylum, but the team went on to double its wins over the next 15 games.
Then, short on bodies due to a trade, the Lakers played an admittedly short-handed Oklahoma City Thunder team on Thursday and recorded their biggest win of the season. The Lakers, seemingly, continue to improve with consistency and win with a defensive formula that seems far easier to replicate on a nightly basis than hoping for hot hands.
In addition, Lonzo Ball has missed 12 straight games, and the rookie point guard won't hurt the team upon his return. Prior to the missed time, Ball was arguably best player on the team. New addition Isaiah Thomas has the potential to quickly replace Jordan Clarkson's scoring prowess, while Channing Frye helps the team in the shooting department, which was a glaring issue all season long.
So, is it time for Lakers coach Luke Walton to bring up the playoffs as a goal and (to borrow a term circling the team in recent days) "recalibrate" the expectations for this season?
"No, not at all," Walton responds when NBCLA.com asked the coach following his post-game press conference Thursday night. "That distracts us from being in the moment, being in the present of what we're trying to do. For me, those end of the road goals are great to have, but we don't need to talk about those because we have a better chance of getting there anyway if we're locked in on today and what we're working on and the one game ahead of us and we're not being distracted by 'oh well, if we win and they lose.'"
The coach continued, "We don't need those distractions. Just stay locked in on whatever game is next. And at the end of the day, if we do that, we have a better chance anyways as opposed to talking about it, 'Oh shoot, we lost three straight.' Now it's a distraction. 'Are we out of it again?'"
So, what about all that chatter about being a playoff team at the start of the season? Wasn't that a goal at the start of the season?
"It's a goal, I think, every team has, but that was never something we talked about much," Walton explained his balanced coaching philosophy. "It was all about getting better and developing our culture and our habits."
When reminded that his players brought up the goal of making the playoffs publicly earlier in the season, the coach didn't claim ignorance but clarified that his staff and coaches didn't do that with the players. The players publicly shared that goal on their own.
So, don't expect the coaching staff to dangle the playoffs like carrots over the players' heads for extra motivation even if the current four-game winning streak continues into the All-Star break or beyond.
The coach's mindset, though, should not distract away from the fact that the Lakers are playing playoff level basketball, beating playoff teams and are back, barely and briefly though it may be, in the playoff picture.