The Portland Trail Blazers continued their winning ways ahead of the postseason with a 104-101 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday at Staples Center.
Maurice Harkless drilled a game-winning three-pointer after tying it up with a shot in the lane on his team's previous possession.
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Portland is now 10-2 in its last 12 games and will enjoy home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs as a result. Los Angeles saw its two-game winning streak come to an end in the final contest of a disappointing season.
Harkless (26 points and eight rebounds), Enes Kanter (22 points and 16 boards), Damian Lillard (20 points, eight assists, four rebounds and three steals) and Seth Curry (19 points on 5-of-8 from deep) led the way for the Trail Blazers, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (32 points, eight assists and five rebounds) countered with an impressive showing in defeat for the Purple and Gold.
Lakers Should Move on from Front Office but Not Luke Walton
The Lakers' 2018-19 season delivered one final plot twist just as NBA fans thought it couldn't get any stranger.
Magic Johnson stepped down as president of basketball operations before Tuesday's game and didn't even tell owner Jeanie Buss about the decision before announcing it in an impromptu press conference:
It was a stunning development and came after head coach Luke Walton said "No. No anxiety," when asked about fears he would be fired after the game, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN. "... But call me later tonight and maybe that answer will be different."
Despite those words, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported the entire coaching staff "fully expected to be fired" and felt that way for months.
Johnson's departure may have changed things, though:
Adrian Wojnarowski @wojespn
Luke Walton has two years left on his contract, but only next season is guaranteed, per source. Lakers hold option on 2020-21 season. Johnson planned to fire him, but stumbled into his own resignation on the way. Somehow, Walton survived Magic Johnson. He didn't see that coming.
Earlier Tuesday, ESPN's Ramona Shelburne had reported Walton and Johnson hadn't even spoken for weeks, underscoring the level of disconnect there was between the front office and the head coach:
Rachel Nichols @Rachel__Nichols
I opened #TheJump noting how so many of the Lakers' issues have zero to do with Luke Walton, so whether they fire him or not, they can't expect change until they face their deeper truths. Then @RamonaShelburne reported Magic hasn't spoken to Luke in weeks, and everyone went nuts: https://t.co/fDgJaIKs3C
This reported disconnect between Walton and the front office is nothing new and has been a central point of many Lakers headlines throughout the season.
In November, Wojnarowski and McMenamin reported Johnson "admonished" Walton following the 3-5 start to the season. That report noted Buss' support for Walton was "unwavering" even after Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were given control of basketball decisions.
That was a common theme, as Buss appeared on Zach Lowe's The Lowe Post podcast in January and said the organization was behind Walton.
Marc Stein of the New York Times reported that month "Walton has the strongest possible backing" from Buss, who would "prevent such rashness" if Johnson and Pelinka made a move to fire the coach.
The reports made it clear Walton had much more support from the owner than the president of basketball operations and general manager. He reportedly wasn't even speaking with Johnson, which makes for an incredibly difficult work environment before even considering the other drama that engulfed Los Angeles' season.
Whether the Lakers would trade for Anthony Davis—who shares an agent with LeBron James and let it be known he wouldn't re-sign with the New Orleans Pelicans—before February's deadline and the pettiness that ensued was the biggest story in the league for weeks.
The Pelicans said they "requested the league to strictly enforce the tampering rules associated with this transaction" in a statement, and a team source told Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium that the Lakers were leaking trade offers to the media.
ESPN's Brian Windhorst said the Pelicans didn't even consider offers from the Lakers as a way of paying them back for perceived tampering:
Rachel Nichols @Rachel__Nichols
So I asked @WindhorstESPN if the Pels ever intended to seriously engage with LA on Anthony Davis, or if all the talks & leaks were instead designed to sabotage the young Lakers as revenge for what N.O. sees as tampering, & he said "it's not just possible, it's what happened." 👀 https://t.co/wki2hDPaEs
Young players such as Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram were all involved in trade discussions, creating a situation where many were expected to perform amid playoff expectations even though they didn't even know if they would be on the team the next day.
Injuries also derailed the Lakers' season well before drama became an everyday occurrence.
Los Angeles was in playoff position when James suffered a groin injury during a Christmas Day win over the Golden State Warriors. The fact that it happened as the Purple and Gold were defeating the league's gold standard made it all the crueler, as they fell down the standings without the King.
Rajon Rondo, Ball, Ingram and Kuzma all missed significant time with physical setbacks as well, putting Walton in a position where he was coaching for his job without many of the key pieces on the roster.
Adjusting to playing with James is a challenging endeavor, seeing how he dominates the ball and enforces his will on the pace and overall game, and the young core had little time to jell with him before injuries and trade talks became the reality.
Despite all of this, the Lakers still managed to improve for the third straight season under Walton's tutelage. They were 26-56 in 2016-17—his first season with the team—but went 35-47 last season and showed the signs of a blossoming contender for stretches.
They went 37-45 this season, and the argument could be made they would be in the playoffs were it not for James' injury.
Buss supported Walton throughout the season even when the Pelinka and Johnson tandem reportedly didn't. Johnson himself said "that's a decision Jeanie has to make," when asked if Pelinka was the best general manager for the job, per Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times.
She shouldn't change her supportive tune when it comes to the head coach now, especially after he worked through adversity, injuries and far more drama than a coach should. It is the front office that failed to put a winning team on the court even after signing James that should be revamped following Johnson's departure, not the coaching staff.
Walton has done nothing but improve the Lakers' record during his tenure and deserves at least one more season to prove himself in a more stable environment.
The Trail Blazers host the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday for their regular-season finale, while the Lakers turn their attention toward the offseason and their presumed efforts to add another marquee player alongside James.