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Lakers, Thunder clash with play-in hopes in focus

Mar 23, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) shoots between Los Angeles Clippers guard Terance Mann (14) and forward Nicolas Batum (33) in the second half at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

After getting a pair of much-needed victories and receiving somewhat positive injury news, the Los Angeles Lakers will carry plenty of optimism into a Friday home matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Lakers (36-37) earned a hard-fought, 122-111 home victory over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. Then on Thursday, media reports indicated that LeBron James would be back in the fold before the end of the regular season.

Lakers coach Darvin Ham said of James’ workouts as the superstar looks to return from a right foot tendon injury, “They’re intense and they’re going well.”

James responded to the reports about his status with a Thursday tweet: “There wasn’t an evaluation today and there hasn’t been any target date for my return. I’m just working around the clock, every day (3X a day) to give myself (the) best chance of coming back full strength whenever that is. God bless y’all sources. I speak for myself!”

The Lakers, who are trying to lock down a spot in the Western Conference play-in tournament, have been finding a way to pull off success without their star. They are 7-5 since James was injured in a Feb. 26 victory against the Dallas Mavericks.

While Anthony Davis and D’Angelo Russell led the initial charge after James went down, a new go-to player has emerged. Austin Reaves scored a career-high 35 points in a victory over the Orlando Magic on Sunday, and that earned him a start on Wednesday. He turned that opportunity into a 25-point, 11-assist performance against the Suns.

“Since Bron’s been out, we’ve had to have multiple guys fill what he does because he does everything on the court,” Reaves said, according to the Orange County Register. “So I’ve tried to be more aggressive offensively both ways, getting teammates involved, and then also scoring and getting to the line.

“So it’s really just been going back and playing basketball the way that I love, the way that I’ve always played and having fun with it.”

Reaves is averaging 19.8 points per game in the past nine contests after putting up 10.8 per game in 46 games to start the season.

The Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander also is on a tear, but his production was expected as he has developed into a legitimate star.

Gilgeous-Alexander scored 30 points on 10-of-15 shooting on Thursday, but the Thunder (36-37) dropped a 127-105 road decision to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Thunder saw the Clippers shoot 56 percent from the field and 48.6 percent (18 of 37) from 3-point range.

Despite the defeat, which came two days after a 101-100 road victory over the Clippers, Oklahoma City has won eight of its past 11 games. Still, the latest loss dropped the Thunder out of a play-in tournament spot in the West, although they are tied with three teams that are eligible, one of which is the Lakers.

“We didn’t execute well enough, weren’t physical enough throughout the game,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “We had moments early, certainly, but we weren’t where we needed to be. So turn the page and we have another opportunity (against the Lakers).”

–Field Level Media

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