The Los Angeles Lakers visit the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday night in a game that could be a preview of a Western Conference play-in contest.
The ninth-place Lakers (31-42) hold a half-game lead over the 10th-place Pelicans (31-43).
“The bigger motivator for us for the final nine games is, how are we playing?” Los Angeles coach Frank Vogel said. “Are we playing winning basketball? And are we improving our habits well enough to win? The habits are the biggest motivator, and there have been some really encouraging signs with how we’ve played.”
The Lakers are hopeful that LeBron James will be available after sitting out a 126-121 home loss to Philadelphia on Wednesday. Los Angeles used its 35th different starting lineup this season against the 76ers.
James hasn’t played since a 131-120 victory at Cleveland on Monday. That gave Los Angeles two wins in its last three road games after losing its previous 11 away from home.
“Our goal is championships, and it’s still there,” said Stanley Johnson, who scored 13 points against Philadelphia. “We’re trying to put the work toward things so when we get to the play-in game and the playoffs that we’re ready, playing our best basketball.”
The Lakers still hope to get injured forward Anthony Davis back before the end of the regular season. But in the meantime they’re trying to strengthen their position in his absence.
The Pelicans fell out of a tie with the Lakers and saw their lead over San Antonio shrink to one game after a 107-103 home loss to the Spurs on Saturday.
The Spurs held a 12-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, but the Pelicans pulled within two points and had the ball in the final 30 seconds. San Antonio swarmed CJ McCollum, who scored a game-high 32 points, and he passed to Jose Alvarado, whose 3-pointer missed with four seconds remaining.
“We got a good look at it, but just didn’t knock it down,” New Orleans first-year coach Willie Green said. “In hindsight, that is a situation where I should have taken a timeout and gotten us organized. I didn’t do that, and that is what the game comes down to by minimizing your mistakes at the end of the game.
“That’s an area where I have to get better at by calling that time out, getting us organized, getting the ball in CJ’s hands, and letting him make a play.”
The Spurs rebounded Alvarado’s miss and Keldon Johnson’s layup completed the victory and gave San Antonio the season series 3-1.
The Pelicans have won the only meeting with the Lakers this season, prevailing 123-95 on Feb. 27 in Los Angeles. The teams wrap up the season series April 1 in Los Angeles.
“We have to learn from (the loss to the Spurs) and can’t let this one take the Lakers out for us,” said Alvarado, an undrafted free agent who scored a season-high 23 points.
Brandon Ingram, who’s averaging 22.8 points for New Orleans, has missed the last 10 games because of a strained hamstring but he could be available Sunday.