Kyle Kuzma, Luke Walton Among Those Confident Lakers Will Keep Focus Despite Being Eliminated From Playoff Contention
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers improved to 33-41 on Wednesday night with a 103-93 win over the Dallas Mavericks. Brook Lopez led the team in scoring with 22 points, while Julius Randle posted another 20-point, 10-rebound double-double.

Since the start of the new year, the Lakers have played their best basketball of the season. But they’ve taken a bit of a step back in the month of March, largely due to a plethora of injuries that have plagued the team.

Isaiah Thomas underwent hip surgery and will miss the remainder of the season, with his recovery projected to take four months. Rookie point guard Lonzo Ball suffered a left knee contusion against the Mavericks, which led to an MRI, though it did not reveal any further injury.

All-in-all, the Lakers are just 7-7 this month with one game to play, before a final seven-game stretch begins in April. Their recent loss against the Detroit Pistons mathematically eliminated them from postseason contention for the fifth consecutive season.

Despite not having much to play for, Lakers head coach Luke Walton is confident that his players will stay focused and finish out the year strong. “It gets more challenging this time of year, but we’re going to be on them,” Walton assured.

“If they want to take nights off, then we’ll sit them on the bench and they can take a night off on the sideline. We’re going to keep trying to play the way we have for most of this year. Whether that’s playing bench guys or starters, that’s going to be dependent on if guys are playing hard.

“Honestly with our group, that’s not going to be an issue. Generally speaking, it gets harder this late in the season but I think our group will continue to play hard and the right way.”

Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma echoed a similar sentiment and doesn’t believe he’ll lose focus because he simply loves playing the sport. “I don’t think so,” Kuzma answered in regards to the team possibly veering off course mentally.

“I love playing basketball, so that definitely won’t be a problem. Everybody in this locker room is the same. We’re a competitive group and really want to win.”

Kuzma wants to finish the season on a positive note and win as many games as possible to close out his rookie campaign.

“Win them all,” he said, when asked what he hopes to achieve during the final stretch. “That’s the biggest thing. Just trying to keep building, pushing the envelope and build that winning culture again.

“We’ve done a great job of winning a lot of games this year that in prior years probably wouldn’t have won. We just want to keep pushing it.”

The Lakers received a boost on Thursday with the return of Brandon Ingram, who took the court for the first time in roughly a month after suffering a groin injury. He scored 13 points, and had six rebounds and four assists in the contest, admittedly working off rust.

“Of course,” Ingram admitted, when asked if it’s difficult to stay on track this late in the season without vying for a playoff berth. “Especially if we’re not playing for the playoffs and guys can think about the season being over.

“It’s going to be easy for us to change our mindset, especially if we get down and aren’t competitive,” Ingram said. “We can’t get comfortable and come in here every day and not be locked in.”

Brook Lopez, a veteran voice to the young core, believes the Lakers have the proper mentality to avoid a late-season hangover. “That can be a problem [but] I don’t think it will be with this team,” he stated. The mindset our guys have is to take it one game at a time and close out the right way.

“We feel we have a lot of guys on this team that are going to be here next year, and we just want to continue to grow each and every game. We just want to continue to build. Obviously we don’t want to take any steps back.”

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