LOS ANGELES -- As competitive as the LeBron James-less Lakers looked in Wednesday's 126-121 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, the defeat only raised the stakes for their next game on the schedule, on the road Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans.
L.A. is currently No. 9 in the Western Conference standings with nine games left to play, and the Pelicans are hot on their tail, just a half-game behind at No. 10.
Sunday's game could fortify the Lakers' lead, helping their path toward hosting the Pelicans in the 9-10 play-in game. Or, it could make the Lakers the team that's playing from behind, desperately trying to cling onto the final play-in spot just to be rewarded with going on the road to play it.
"It's going to be a playoff-type of atmosphere for us because it's definitely a must-win, I believe, for our group," said Russell Westbrook, who had 24 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and seven turnovers in James' absence against the Sixers.
James, who was held out Wednesday because of soreness in his left knee, will have an opportunity for six days of rest leading into the New Orleans game.
If he feels healthy enough, he'll be in there, and L.A. will try to keep up the modicum of momentum it has been able to generate, going 2-2 over its past four games. The Lakers have found an offensive groove in those four games, dishing out 25 assists or more in all of them.
"We're making progress," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. "We're building habits that are going to win for us in the postseason. And, we're continuing to grow. I think this game, we're disappointed we lost. But without Bron, without [Anthony Davis], the group that played tonight showed everyone that we still have a whole lot of fight left in us."
The last time L.A. played New Orleans, with James in the lineup, the Pelicans blew the Lakers out by 28. It was part of L.A.'s post All-Star break slump, when it went 2-9 -- with four of those losses coming by 20 points or more -- and struggled to find any sort of footing.
"I'm never going to give up," said Dwight Howard, whose 24 points on Wednesday marked the most he has scored in a game since Nov. 16, 2018. "I don't think any of us feels like the season is just over with. We're going to do whatever we can to make it. It's not been the season that we've all wanted. It took us a real long time to really jell, but there's nothing we can do now but just stay positive, keep fighting."
Of course, a loss to New Orleans would put L.A. closer to falling out of the play-in tournament completely. The Lakers are just two games up on No. 11 San Antonio after the Spurs beat the Portland Trail Blazers 133-96 on Wednesday. The Spurs have two more games remaining on their schedule against the Blazers, too.
And so it will be an extended play-in, in essence, to get to the real play-in tournament for this Lakers team.
"Hopefully our group's collective playoff experience will pay off for us," Vogel said of the task ahead.