When the ball bounced on the lip of the rim and fell through, Staples Center erupted, which is the appropriate reaction when the home team wins.
But with the 110-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Lakers’ fourth in a row, Los Angeles (25-55) missed an opportunity to make ground on the Phoenix Suns (24-57), who had defeated the Dallas Mavericks earlier in the night, as the Lakers battle to keep their top-three protected 2017 lottery pick.
For the first time since the 2012-13 season, when they won their final five games of the season, the Lakers have won four games in a row. This should be a cause for celebration — but these wins are coming at the worst possible time. With two games remaining on the Lakers’ schedule, and one for the Suns, their respective fates are likely set, which means the Lakers will head to New York on May 16 for the 2017 draft lottery with the third-best odds at the No. 1 overall pick and a 48.6 percent chance of keeping their lottery pick.
At this point in the season, Lakers fans are conflicted.
Wins have been few and far between over the past four years, so a victory under any circumstances is always welcomed. But winning diminishes the Lakers’ odds of keeping their pick, meaning short-term success could cost the Lakers a franchise cornerstone and possibly stymie their future.
To complicate matters further, after the game Russell revealed to Spectrum Sportsnet that his paternal grandmother had passed away this morning, and then attributed his game-winner to divine intervention.
“It’s just God,” Russell said. “I just wanted to win. For me to win the game with a game-winning shot is God putting the cherry on top. A win would have been good enough.”
Russell actually wasn’t even supposed to play but he arrived at Staples Center and changed his mind at the last second, according to Lakers coach Luke Walton.
“I knew that’s what my grandma would have wanted,” Russell said. “My dad, brothers and everyone wanted me to play. I wanted to get away from basketball. I didn’t want to express myself through basketball, but it was [the] only option I had and I tried to take advantage of it.”
Walton added: “We had talked this morning and originally he wasn’t going to play. Then he texted me on the way to the arena and said he wanted to play. I said, ‘Of course. Whatever we can do for you. I’ll leave it in your hands.’ He said he wanted to play.
“I get goosebumps even talking about the way the game ended. I mean, how awesome for him on such a tough day for him.”
The news of the passing of Russell’s grandmother made this a heartwarming win, and some Lakers fans will put their vested interests aside and be fine with Sunday night’s outcome. It’s a feel-good story that’s bigger than basketball.
But others taking a colder, more calculated approach will note that the Lakers’ wins have almost defied logic, with Walton relying on heavy minutes from Corey Brewer, Tyler Ennis, David Nwaba and even Metta World Peace to win four straight games against competition with a combined .517 winning percentage.
Even Russell, the man of the hour, couldn’t explain how the Lakers have been playing so well of late.
“Honestly, I have no idea,” Russell said.
All four games — the wins over Memphis, Sacramento and now Minnesota, in particular — were swung by a possession or two that went the Lakers’ way in crucial moments. That can happen over the course of an 82-game season, but lose two of those four and the Lakers are probably locked in with the second-best odds at the No. 1 overall pick, bumping the likelihood of keeping their pick to 54.1 percent. The Lakers can still tie the Suns if they lose out and the Suns win their last game of the season at Sacramento on Tuesday.
However, as it stands now, the Lakers now have better than a 50 percent chance of losing their pick, and thus also losing their 2019 first-round draft pick in the continued fallout from the Dwight Howard trade. The next three years could be dramatically altered after Sunday’s emotional and conflicting win, and it likely isn’t for the better.