The Los Angeles Lakers are on the outside of the Western Conference play-in tournament race with 10 games to go and each setback feels like a double-whammy due to the tight pack of teams in contention.
The Lakers entered Tuesday’s play in 11th place in the West and will look to make an upward move when they host the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night.
Los Angeles (35-37) is part of a bunch in which nine teams are separated by a total of four games, topped by the Suns (38-33) in fourth place in the West.
The contest with Phoenix is the third of a five-game homestand for the Lakers. A five-game road trip follows, which makes each Los Angeles home game hugely important.
The Lakers split the first two games, losing on a last-second 3-pointer to the Dallas Mavericks before recovering to notch a 111-105 win over the Orlando Magic on Sunday.
The guy known as “Hillbilly Kobe” saved the night against Orlando. Austin Reaves pumped in a career-best 35 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter.
The second-year undrafted player from a small town in Arkansas was blown away by receiving “MVP, MVP” chants at the free-throw line.
“For them to recognize what I do — obviously I’m not an MVP-caliber player, those guys are really good — but for them to do that is special,” Reaves said. “It means a lot to me.”
Reaves is averaging 25 points, five rebounds and five assists over the past three games at a time when the Lakers needed somebody to step up in the continued absence of LeBron James (foot).
“I thought it was (Reaves) being his normal self,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said of the performance. “What he’s been all year. Coming up in clutch moments for us, trying to make plays downhill, putting the defense in uncomfortable situations with his ability to attack the paint and draw fouls. He was great. He ended up with 35, and we needed all of them.”
The Suns were hoping to make it a three-way battle for second in the West with the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings. But four losses in the past five games have all but ended that prospect, and Phoenix is now trying to hold off the fifth-place Los Angeles Clippers.
The Suns had a half-game lead over the Clippers entering Tuesday as they prepare for the middle game of a three-game road trip. Phoenix lost the opener 124-120 to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday after letting a 15-point lead slip away.
Big man Deandre Ayton (hip) sat out against Oklahoma City and the Suns continue to be without Kevin Durant (ankle).
Devin Booker carried the load against the Thunder with 46 points on 18-of-28 shooting. Booker has topped 40 points seven times this season and is averaging 34.1 points and shooting 57.4 percent from the field in nine games in March.
Backup guard Landry Shamet returned against Oklahoma City to score 10 points in 20 minutes after missing 25 consecutive games with a left foot injury. Shamet was 3 of 4 from 3-point range.
“Felt good just to be back and playing,” Shamet said afterward. “It’s been a long two months just sitting and watching. It felt good to get back out there and I’m excited for what we got coming down the stretch.”
Phoenix is 2-0 against the Lakers this season and has won the past six meetings between the teams. James didn’t play in either of this season’s matchups.
The Suns posted a 115-105 home win on Nov. 22 despite Anthony Davis having a monster game of 37 points and 21 rebounds. Phoenix also rolled to a 130-104 home victory on Dec. 19 when Davis and Booker joined James on the sidelines.