Los Angeles—The Los Angeles Lakers raised their 2020 NBA championship banner Wednesday, then scraped a 124-122 victory over the hapless Houston Rockets to keep alive their hopes of direct entry to the 2021 playoffs.
The Atlanta Hawks clinched their first playoff berth since 2016 with a 120-116 come-from-behind victory over the Washington Wizards, and the New York Knicks were assured of their first post-season spot since 2013 when the Boston Celtics fell 102-94 to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But with the regular season speeding toward its close on Sunday, the Lakers remained outside the top six in the Western Conference and likely looking at having to advance through the play-in tournament for the teams ranked seventh through 10th in each conference.
Lakers reserve Kyle Kuzma drove for the go-ahead layup with 6.9 seconds remaining, putting Los Angeles up 123-122 after they had surrendered nine straight points to fall one point down.
Lakers forward Wesley Matthews then managed to poke the ball away from Houston’s Kelly Olynyk on what would be the Rockets’ final possession, and Talen Horton-Tucker made a free-throw to complete the scoring.
Even with superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis sidelined by injuries, the Lakers wouldn’t have expected to cut it so fine against a Rockets team that owns the worst record in the league.
Before tip-off, a crowd of 4,087 saw the Lakers finally raise the franchise’s 17th championship banner to the rafters.
‘This is for you’
The Lakers had waited until pandemic restrictions eased enough to allow some fans in the stands for the moment and James, still feeling the effects of a high ankle sprain suffered in March, was on hand to address the crowd.
“We could not send this banner to the rafters without you guys,” he told fans. “This is absolutely for you guys. On the road to back-to-back (titles), starts in about a week.”
The teams occupying the final two playoff spots in the West, Portland and Dallas, both won on Wednesday, Portland downing the league-leading Utah Jazz 105-98 and Dallas beating the New Orleans Pelicans 125-107.
Luka Doncic scored 33 points with eight rebounds and eight assists for the Mavericks, whose victory eliminated the Pelicans from post-season contention.
Kristaps Porzingis returned from a seven-game injury absence to score 19 points in 22 minutes on court for the Mavs.
Portland, meanwhile, were fueled by 30 points from Damian Lillard and 26 from CJ McCollum.
More pieces of the playoff puzzle fell into place in the East, where Trae Young scored 33 points to propel the Hawks past the Wizards. AFP
John Collins, fed by Young, drained a go-ahead three-pointer with 24.8 seconds left to play as the Hawks erased a 13-point third-quarter deficit and secured the win.
“We were fighting all game,” Young said after the Hawks withstood a 34-point, 15-assist performance from Wizards star Russell Westbrook.
“Shots weren’t going our way, Russ was playing crazy out of his mind,” Young said. “We needed to keep fighting, keep believing and that’s what we did.”
Atlanta out-scored the Wizards 37-25 in the final frame, holding Washington scoreless over the final 2:43 as they beat them for the second time in three nights.
The Knicks had the night off, but their playoff berth was secured when the Celtics fell to the Cavs — who had lost 11 straight and were already eliminated from playoff contention.
The defeat means the Celtics will battle in the play-in tournament for a berth in the playoffs proper.
'The Beard’ is back
Kevin Love scored a season-high 30 points for the Cavs and Collin Sexton added 28, while Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 29 points.
Already reeling from the loss of Jaylen Brown for the rest of the season with a torn left wrist ligament, the Celtics were without injured Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart as they lost for the eighth time in 11 games.
Elsewhere in the East, James Harden returned from a nagging hamstring injury to score 18 points with 11 assists and seven rebounds in the Brooklyn Nets’ wire-to-wire 128-116 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
The victory left the Nets a slim hope of catching the Philadelphia 76ers for the top seed in the East.
The Spurs, who were led by 21 points from DeMar DeRozan, are in 10th place in the West, with a two-game lead over the Sacramento Kings for the final play-in spot.