Lakers’ successful 5-1 road trip has them peaking at the right time — again

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WASHINGTON — Los Angeles Lakers head coach Darvin Ham didn’t need to say anything.

When he made eye contact with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the huddle during the game’s final timeout, his starters knew what they needed to do.

James, Davis, Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves all got off the bench — James was already in his warmups ready to head to the locker room, as he’ll sometimes do to begin his postgame treatment early — and stepped back onto the court for the team’s final defensive possession.

The third-string group of Colin Castleton, Jaxson Hayes, Maxwell Lewis, Max Christie and Spencer Dinwiddie had played a stretch of unserious basketball to close the game — a bad habit for the Lakers all season, but especially on this road trip. An 11-point lead turned into a five-point one in roughly a minute, with the Washington Wizards calling timeout with the ball and a chance to make it a one-possession game with 17.4 seconds left after a careless Lakers turnover.

With Los Angeles just seconds away from concluding a 5-1 road trip and returning home after 10 days of travel, they needed one final stop from their starters — with Dinwiddie in for D’Angelo Russell for defensive purposes — to seal the victory. Davis blocked a 26-foot 3-point attempt from Jared Butler, and the Lakers won 125-120 over the Wizards at Capital One Arena on Wednesday.

“I like how we approached the road trip,” Davis said. “It was a good road trip for us.”

The Lakers’ voyage took them from Milwaukee to Memphis, Indiana, Brooklyn, Toronto and Washington D.C. With four of the six games coming against lottery teams, the Lakers’ focus was largely internal, trying to uncover ways to improve and shore up weaknesses.

Los Angeles handled its business with a level of determination and consistency that has eluded the team for much of the season. The Lakers beat the Bucks in double-overtime without James — on the shortlist for their best win of the season. They routed the Grizzlies, Nets and Raptors by double figures. The Pacers ran them off the floor on an off-shooting night, the lone “hiccup” of the trip, as Ham said. They outlasted the Wizards to avoid a disastrous finale.

Friday’s win pushed the Lakers to 44-33 — one more win than they had last season — with five games remaining. It was a successful trip, one in which the Lakers racked up road wins, kept pace with the rest of the unforgiving West and gave themselves a shot to jump into the No. 7 vs. No. 8 Play-In game — or even higher — if the No. 6 Phoenix Suns (45-31), No. 7 New Orleans Pelicans (45-31) or No. 8 Sacramento Kings (44-31) slip up over the season’s final week and a half.

“When we play the way we’re capable, we play at an elite level,” Ham said. “Not (a) high level. (An) elite level — on both sides of the ball.”

Davis (27.6 points, 16.4 rebounds, 2.0 blocks) and James (25.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 8.6 assists) predictably led the Lakers on the trip, but they weren’t the only players to perform well. Hachimura stepped up with four games of seven-plus rebounds after just six such games previously. Russell continued his timely 3-point barrages. Reaves wore multiple hats, ranging from crunch-time scorer, to point-of-attack defender, to playmaker to rebounding guard.

Dinwiddie has become a glue guy with his defense and aptitude for making the extra pass (almost to a detrimental extent). Gabe Vincent returned from left knee surgery and delivered a defensive spark. Jaxson Hayes is a much-needed infusion of energy, length and athleticism. Taurean Prince provides spacing and reliability.

“I think offensively we’ve been very consistent,” James said. “Our ball movement, sharing the ball. We still got to crack down on some of the unforced turnovers but we’re all in a good rhythm playing off one another. I think defensively, we’ve been good at times. We can be a lot better at times, but when we’ve needed to get stops, we’ve got it done for this whole trip.”

Blown late lead aside — Ham said he’ll sit down with some of the younger players Friday at practice to discuss the situation — the Lakers are peaking at the right time for the second consecutive season. If they can advance through the Play-In and make the playoffs, the Lakers project as a dangerous lower seed with two top-15 players, several high-level role players, a crystallized rotation and burgeoning confidence.

Los Angeles is 20-8 since Feb. 1 — the second-best record in the West and tied for the third-best record behind Boston and Denver, the universally acclaimed two best teams in the league and NBA Finals favorites. Over that stretch of 28 games, the Lakers rank second in offense, 18th in defense and 11th in net rating. They’ve won eight of nine games recently, yet remain ninth in the West.

“The West is so deep. We hit this stride, we’re playing well and everyone else is too,” Ham said pregame. “It’s like no one is helping anybody. … It’s like, from one through 11, it’s unprecedented. I’ve been around the league a long time. Twenty-eight years, I’ve never seen this where you have teams 10, nine games over .500 and fighting in Play-In position.”

Perhaps the most important development outside of continued winning was the return of Vincent, the Lakers’ primary offseason addition who had played in just five games this season because of a left knee injury. Vincent made an immediate impact with his defense, pressuring ballhandlers 94 feet, fighting around screens and delivering a level of physicality that the backcourt has lacked.

Jarred Vanderbilt, who has been out since Feb. 1 with a right midfoot injury, will be re-evaluated early next week, according to Ham. That means he’ll miss at least Saturday’s home game vs. Cleveland and Sunday’s home game vs. Minnesota. Vanderbilt has not begun on-court conditioning or contact drills, two hurdles he’ll have to clear before returning.

As for what the Lakers can take from the trip and apply to the rest of the season, Ham believes the recent results are the blueprint for how the Lakers need to play. That includes generating the offense from the inside out, making the right reads in LA’s five-out offensive concepts, rebounding, defending as well as the group reasonably can and controlling the possession battle (turnovers, offensive rebounds, free throws), to name a few core principles.

The Lakers are taking Thursday off before going over the good, bad and ugly from their trip in an in-depth film session at Friday’s practice.

With five games remaining, the Lakers are finally rounding into form. How they fare the rest of the regular season, and whether they can jump a spot or two in the standings, will go a long way in dictating the viability of their postseason path.

“We just hope we can go through the same journey in terms of securing a playoff spot and having success — and go even deeper this time,” Ham said of the group’s goals for the rest of the season.

(Photo of D’Angelo Russell, LeBron James and Anthony Davis: Stephen Gosling / NBAE via Getty Images)

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