Last Saturday, June 5, the Los Angeles Lakers and their uncanny NBA season, wrote 30. It came via an uneventful 113-100 Game 6 shellacking in the hands of the upstart Phoenix Suns who became alive only recently as an NBA franchise after getting the expensive services of point-God Chris Paul and the coming of age of prolific big guard Devin Booker and former top draft pick DeAndre Ayton.
Actually, in my book, it ended well before halftime of Game 4, while the defending champs were still up 2-1 in the opening round series, when Anthony Davis, considered the anchor of the LA Showtime offense as well as the real backbone behind its league-best defense, fell down in a heap after attempting a drive to the basket, injuring his groin in the process.
After it was announced that AD was done for the night, if not the remainder of the season, it somehow crossed my mind that the Lakers were already dead meat.
But hey, I told myself, the Lakers still have LeBron James, who, for most of the NBA fandom in their teens and 20s, is the best basketball player there is. Surely, LeBron, much like when he single-handedly did at around the same time in seasons 2008 and 2018 when he had a couple of young guns and veteran misfits for teammates and not much more, can still bring his team to the grand stage that is the NBA Finals with whatever little help he has.
And even with AD sidelined, he still has old reliables Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, and Talen Horton-Tucker, with whom he savored championship wine not too long ago, not to mention new recruits Dennis Schroder, Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell, Wesley Matthews, and Ben McLemore, who all starred in their previous stops elsewhere.
Then, as soon as my spirits were lifted with the thought of LeBron having more than enough help to survive the injury to AD, it all went crashing down to earth. Reason? There were two things gravely different this time around.
First, in both the 2008 and 2018 seasons, LeBron was playing in the East. And while I am in no way saying that the East remains as the “weaker conference,” especially now that the three-headed monster that is the Brooklyn Nets is out there in the East together with tough customers the Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks, the West is still made up of different, more dangerous animals always ready to strike and ambush the unprepared.
Second, on his way to the Finals in 2008 and 2018, LBJ was obviously a lot younger, and more importantly healthy as a bull. He then could just carry the whole team on his sturdy back deep into the playoffs. This year, at age 36, The King is coming off a second major injury as a Laker and, by his own admission immediately after losing his first-ever opening-round playoff series in his sterling career, only no more than 85% healthy. There’s just no way LeBron could carry such a heavy load with him not going in 100% healthy, AD or no AD.
Yes, the Lakers’ supporting cast is definitely no slouch and all, individually, can ball but they, especially the new guys, need to be in the same court as LeBron for a considerable time for them to be effective playing with LeBron. In fact, new guys Drummond and McLemore shared the court with LeBron for only several minutes in two games—yes, TWO GAMES—of the regular season prior to immersing themselves in the postseason. Sadly, that is what the injury to him, and AD too, deprived them of—the chance to gel as a scoring unit in time for the playoffs. The result? A team that is strong on paper but visibly lacking in chemistry, something that could have been built by sharing actual court time.
So, after snatching a win in Phoenix and the first game of the series at Staples Center, coupled with the injury to AD, the Lakers imploded, not knowing what hit them, and LeBron, always the caped hero in seasons past, was unable to put on his costume this time to save the team from the certain claws of defeat.
Now, while eight teams still remain to duke it out for all the marbles culminating with the awarding of the Larry O’Brien Trophy sometime in July, the Lakers’ think-tanks are already deep in thought. Roster changes are certainly forthcoming, but most of all, they need to fill the basketball gods’ altar with all the sacrifices they can muster so that their players would stay healthy for another championship run before LeBron rides into the sunset and calls it a career.