Season Half Over, Are the Lakers Playoff Contenders?

The Lakers are only 2.0 games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference following a win over the Magic

Entering 2017, the Los Angeles Lakers looked like a dead body strapped to a slap of concrete sinking to the bottom of the Western Conference. The Lakers were on the tail end of a stretch that saw the purple and gold lose 15 of 17 games and fall from a promising playoff contender playing with energy to a lifeless team looking like it could finish with a top three draft pick for the third year in a row.

Then, a new year brought about new hope.

Three wins in four games, including three wins in a row at home saw the Lakers suddenly climb back into the playoff picture. Waking up on Monday morning, Lakers coach Luke Walton can check the standings and see that his team of young, blooming talent is only two games out of the final playoff spot with half a season to play.

When NBCLA approached the coach and told him that Sunday night marked the halfway point in the season, he responded, "Really? That was fast."

Upon being reminded that his team started 10-10 before losing 15 of 17 games and now recording three wins in its last four contests, the coach used his arms to mimic the motion of a roller coaster.

The 2016-17 season has been a roller coaster for the Lakers, but the Lakers could yet get off the ride smiling, rather than feeling sick to their stomachs. After beating the Miami Heat by 27 points and beating the Orlando Magic by 16 points, LA has seemingly rebounded from a dreadful December where injuries and a tough schedule took their toll on a young ball club. December featured 16 games over 31 days, 10 of which were on the road. However, LA seemed to have turned a corner, broken the shackles of its sinking body bag and given itself a chance to get to the surface in time to catch an all-important breath..

Following the recent performances, LA looks like it's finally gaining its sea legs with its collection of young talent leading the way. Lottery picks Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram have played vital roles in the revitalized Lakers' rebirth.

"There's been a real change in the way they're preparing as far as how hard they're playing in practice, the accountability they're taking when they're making mistaking, the constant staying after and getting shots up whether it's shootaround or practice," Walton spoke about Russell and Randle following Sunday's victory over the Orlando Magic.

Walton added, "They've really stepped up their professionalism as far as [how] they're treating their bodies and approaching practice at every opportunity."

According to the coach, Russell has "re-committed" himself in the weight room, and the 36-year-old maestro spoke about how the process of improvement has been gradual.

Russell missed 12 games due to injury, which coincided with the Lakers losing their way. Slowly, the point guard has re-assumed his role as a leader on the court. Since the start of the month, Russell is averaging 20.8 points, 5.0 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game while only turning the ball over 1.4 times per game. In addition, the 20-year-old is shooting 39.5 percent from beyond the three-point line on a sizable 7.6 attempts per game. If anything, Russell could do with spending more time shooting over smaller defenders in the post, but the former Ohio State Buckeye has quickly become a dead-eye long range shooter for LA.

Likewise, Randle has turned into a monster that fills the box score in a manner reminiscent of versatile forward Lamar Odom. Randle, who became one of only six players with multiple triple-doubles in the NBA during the 2016-17 season, is averaging 17.0 points 9.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.4 steals with only 1.6 turnovers per game. To illustrate how difficult it is to record a triple-double, Randle has more triple-doubles than Chris Paul, Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant and is only one statistical blockbuster game shy of LeBron James.

As starters and finishers, Russell and Randle have been playing at All-Star levels in 2017, though neither expects to earn a spot in February's showcase exhibition game due to the Lakers' December woes.

Following Sunday's game, the Lakers look healthy again, with Larry Nance Jr. the only injured body, though the backup forward expects to return within the next couple weeks. On Sunday, Nance told NBCLA he was confident that he would beat his initial four week recovery timeline and stated he was already on the court shooting.

As the Lakers have gained health over the previous month, Ingram has returned to his familiar bench role with greater consistency while continuing to experience valuable minutes at the end of games.

"We're big fans of what he can do on the basketball court," Walton said when the topic turned to Ingram on Sunday night.

While the 19-year-old has been an asset defensively and on the boards throughout the season, Ingram has scored in double-figures in each of his last three games, which equals the number of times he crossed that threshold during the entire month of December. Over those three games, Ingram has made 15 of his 24 field goal attempts, which calculates to an eye-popping 62.5 percent from the field for the lanky, gliding forward. In addition, the North Carolina native has made 44.4 percent of his three pointers in his last three games, which signals that the former Duke Blue Devil may have broken through the fabled rookie wall.

"I keep thinking he's going to hit a rookie wall, and I thought he even did earlier in the season, so maybe he even hit it and pushed through, but he looks great. He really does." Walton continued gushing over the no. 2 over all pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. "A lot of times, you can physically see when a rookie hits that wall. They can't even keep their eyes open in film sessions."

Walton added, "He's alert. He's in there early. He wants more every time I talk to him. He wants that responsibility."

When caught up with the rookie following Sunday's game, he pointed to the help provided by the coaching staff and veterans on the roster in helping him adjust over the first half of the season. When asked if anything has been different recently, Ingram admitted that he's been "more locked in" and pointed to the "repetition" and consistency of practice finally translating to the games.

Along with the trio of lottery picks, the Lakers have also been getting valuable minutes from veterans like Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov recently. Both free agent acquisitions have been criticized for their hefty price tags, but the two new faces have seemingly adjusted to their new roles under their new coach. Likewise, Jordan Clarkson seems to have found a fighting spirit, literally and figuratively, off the bench in recent games.

"I think it's the whole team, whether they got sick of losing or whatever it was, but the whole team has really brought it, kind of like we got after it in training camp, the last weeks in practice," Walton said regarding the recent change in play and results.

Forty-one games into an 82-game season, the Lakers have been on a roller coaster ride, but halfway through the ride, this team looks far more like the team that started 10-10 than the team that lost 15 of 17 games in the middle. If the purple and gold can stay healthy for the second half of the season, this team looks far more likely to rise to the surface than to sink to the bottom of the Western Conference. Also, a friendly home schedule to end the season offers all the makings of a storybook Hollywood ending (Don't say we didn't warn you back in November).

Can the Lakers make the postseason?

Most certainly, the NBA playoffs are back in play for the LA Lakers, and a win on Tuesday at home over the Portland Trail Blazers could bring the Lakers within one game of that final Western Conference playoff berth. Of course, the second half of the roller coaster NBA season promises more ups and downs, but on the whole, the Lakers look to be on the up and up and their young players seem to be trending upwards.

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