On Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Lakers revealed the franchise’s 17th NBA title banner at Staples Center, and LeBron James used the opportunity to set his sights on No. 18.
“We decided we wouldn’t unveil this banner until we had some of you guys in the stands, so this is your guys’ moment,” James said into a microphone before Los Angeles’ 124-122 victory over the Houston Rockets. “We had our ring night; we wanted you guys to be there, but we wanted to make sure we kept the banner for you guys.”
“So, we adore you, and the journey to back-to-back begins in just a fortnight. So, let’s get started.”
The victory over Houston kept Los Angeles’ dreams of escaping the play-in tournament alive, where they will have to face the likes of Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors or the upstart Memphis Grizzlies led by Ja Morant, or James’ old Finals nemesis, Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs.
If the Lakers go 2-0 in their season finales against the Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Pelicans this weekend, and either the Portland Trail Blazers go 0-2 at Phoenix and vs. Denver or the Dallas Mavericks go 0-2 at Toronto and at Minnesota, L.A. will reach the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. If both the Blazers and the Mavericks go 0-2 this season, the Lakers will be the No. 5 seed.
Before the game, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said that it is likely that his team will be entirely healthy and eligible for just the second time this season when the Lakers play in Indiana on Saturday.
“Obviously, it’s exciting to have us back, to have our squad totally safe,” said Wesley Matthews, who contributed to the victory over Houston with a late defensive strip on Kelly Olynyk. “And from there, we’ll see where we are.”
Matthews, who signed as a free agent with the Lakers in the offseason, was nowhere to be seen during the banner ceremony, opting to sit in the locker room to pray.
“It was something I thought was important for them,” he said. “And my fire burns and my thirst burns, to lift that flag.”
The Lakers held a regular ring ceremony on the opening night of the 2020-21 season in December but did not announce the championship banner until L.A. County’s COVID-19 rules were relaxed, allowing fans to enter the building.
According to a Lakers spokesman, approximately 4,000 fans attended Wednesday’s game, which is much less than Staples Center’s 19,000 capacity for Lakers games but more than double the 1,915 fans present on April 15 against the Boston Celtics – the first game fans were allowed back.
Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ governor, shared the center court with James. The Larry O’Brien Trophy from the team’s 2020 championship, won in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, sat on a table between them.
“We’ve held off until now because our banners have always been for our fans,” Buss said. “It’s great to hear you guys talking and to see you together as a family again. We’ve received our trophy, and the players have received their rings. Our final task in commemorating our 2020 NBA championship is to thank our fans with a banner.”
According to a team spokeswoman, the Lakers plan to continue can attendance capability in the playoffs while adhering to state and local coronavirus recommendations.
James addressed the audience while sporting a baseball-style hat, dark green jeans, and a black sweatshirt, despite missing his sixth consecutive game due to a high right ankle sprain. When he was out, Lakers longtime public address announcer Lawrence Tanter counted down “3-2-1,” and the black cloak with the word “Stay Tuned, Lakers Family” that had been covering the championship banner since opening night was gone.
To follow the moment, Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blared from the arena’s sound system.
Anthony Davis, who was still dressed in street clothes and was unable to play due to groyne tightness, then took the microphone to conclude the pregame ceremony.
“What a sensation,” Davis exclaimed. “I never imagined I’d be hanging one of these banners, guy. And it’s all thanks to you. It’s all because of you, your unwavering love for me, my teammates, and the coaching staff.
“Before the break, until you were able to enter the house. And when we went to the bubble, we’d come in every night and see you guys cheering for us on the tv. And it means a great deal to us. And without you, we wouldn’t be able to lift this flag or carry this trophy.
“So, I love you guys, and, as Bron said, let’s keep this thing rolling and try to repeat.”
It’s unclear how often James and Davis will play this weekend, or whether Dennis Schroder will be cleared from the league’s health and safety guidelines, or whether Alex Caruso’s swollen right foot will feel well enough to join them.
But, enjoying a three-game winning streak, the Lakers sound like they’re looking forward to what happens next, whether it’s a play-in game, the postseason, or anything more.
“Honestly, it’s a lot of fun,” Kyle Kuzma said. “To be honest. The season has been difficult for us. We’ve got rotatable roles, people coming in and out, people in COVID protocols, and people who aren’t well enough to play. We’ve just got to work things out on the run, and I believe we’ll be fine.”