Lakers looking up at streaking Knicks ahead of matchup

LeBron James may or may not play against the New York Knicks on Saturday night.

But whether he’s on the court or on the bench for the Los Angeles Lakers, James — perhaps for the first time in his 21 seasons — will be part of a team that appears further away from championship contention than the Knicks.

The Lakers will attempt to slow the red-hot Knicks in New York in the final battle of the regular season between the big-market giants.

Both teams earned wins Thursday night. With James sidelined due to a left ankle injury, the visiting Lakers beat the Boston Celtics 114-105.

The host Knicks earned their eighth straight win by overcoming a 15-point first-half deficit to edge the Indiana Pacers 109-105.

The results Thursday helped bring the Knicks even closer to what has been uncharted territory for the franchise in a century dominated by James and his teams — the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat as well as the Lakers.

New York remained in third place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers, while moving within a half-game of the Milwaukee Bucks and within five games of the first-place Celtics.

James’ teams have won 41 playoff series since he debuted in the fall of 2003. The Knicks have played just 41 playoff games in that span, during which they’ve won two series and never advanced beyond the second round.

But championship contention appears to be an increasingly realistic goal for the Knicks, who are thriving despite an undermanned roster. Center Mitchell Robinson may be out for the season following ankle surgery while All-Star Julius Randle is out indefinitely with a separated shoulder.

Defensive stopper OG Anunoby has missed the past three games with a right elbow injury and Quentin Grimes was sidelined Thursday with a right knee injury.

Yet Jalen Brunson remains mostly healthy, and the first-time All-Star — who missed two games due to a calf injury in January — lifted the Knicks Thursday by scoring 11 of his 40 points in the final 6:25.

New York is 14-1 with Brunson in the lineup since Jan. 1, a stretch in which he’s averaged 29.6 points and 7.3 assists per game.

“He’s having an MVP-caliber season right now,” Knicks guard Donte DiVincenzo said. “The dude is doing all that he possibly can to win us games.

“It’s not easy right now with Julius going down, with OG (Anunoby) going down … Mitch not being here. Everything has been thrown against us and he’s still willing us to win games.”

For James and the Lakers, it is becoming increasingly likely that any playoff run will again have to begin via the play-in tournament.

Los Angeles, which finished in seventh place in the Western Conference before reaching the conference finals last spring, is in ninth place in the West at 25-25.

The Lakers haven’t been more than two games above or below .500 since Dec. 18, when they were 15-12 following a 114-109 home loss to the Knicks.

Getting back to the break-even mark didn’t seem likely against the NBA-leading Celtics when Los Angeles scratched James as well as All-Star Anthony Davis (left Achilles).

But Austin Reaves drained a career-high seven 3-pointers to lead six players in double figures for the Lakers, who led for the final 33-plus minutes Thursday.

“We went out there and competed our (rear ends) off,” Reaves said, who scored 32 points. “We gave it 110 percent on the defensive end. We competed. We didn’t foul much.”

The Lakers were whistled for just eight fouls, their fewest since they drew nine fouls against the Utah Jazz on April 9, 2023.

“Just bringing those two (James and Davis) back, we need to continue to do the same thing,” Reaves said.