Can the Nets live up to the hype in the NBA playoffs?
SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt breaks down two teams at the top of the Eastern Conference who are under pressure to make a deep run in the NBA playoffs.
SportsPulse, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES – The Lakers’ star delayed Father Time with his blessed genes, impeccable talent and disciplined work habits. With those same qualities, can LeBron James also keep the Lakers’ championship window open without Anthony Davis?
“These shoulders were built for a reason,” James said. “If it takes for me to put some more on top of it, then so be it. Win, lose or draw. I’m ready for the challenge.”
Neither the Lakers nor James were exactly ready for the challenge with adjusting immediately without Davis, who missed the entire second half of the Lakers’ 100-92 Game 5 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Sunday at Staples Center after straining his left groin. The Suns secured the win to tie the series, 2-2, after the Lakers floundered on offense in the third quarter. They mustered up only 15 points on 3-of-16 shooting during that stretch.
If the Lakers failed to win Game 4 without Davis, it is only fair to wonder if the Lakers can win the rest of their first-round series against Phoenix, let alone defend their NBA championship. There is a reason why James advocated so loudly for the Lakers to acquire Davis from New Orleans two years ago. There is a reason why the Lakers gave up significant pieces of their young roster along with draft picks to acquire Davis. Therefore, James conceded, “if he’s not ready for Game 5, it’s going to be a tough blow for our ball club.”
NBA PLAYOFF SCHEDULE: First-round matchups, results, game times and TV info
‘WE CAN BE BETTER’: Year after NBA Finals trip, Miami Heat’s season comes to an early end
The Lakers did not have immediate answers on Davis health, either. Davis did not speak to reporters afterwards. Lakers coach Frank Vogel added that Davis is “undergoing further medical evaluation.”
Therefore, it remains unclear if Davis’ latest injury matches the level of seriousness that James experienced when he missed a combined 27 games during his first season with the Lakers after also spraining his left groin. Or, if Davis can become available almost as quickly as he did after returning from a left knee injury that disrupted his play in Game 4 (six points on 2-of-9 shooting) after not limiting him at all in Game 3 (34 points on 11-for-22 shooting).
Regardless of Davis’ availability, the Lakers still must wrestle with a big-picture question. Can the Lakers win without relying on him?
“It’s about putting our team in position to be successful,” James said. “It starts with my approach and it starts with my accountability. It starts with everybody else.”
It might be tempting to roll an eye at the Lakers touting their “next-man up” mantra. Remember when the Lakers went a combined 7-10 without James and Davis? Remember when the Lakers still played badly enough upon their return that they dropped into the play-in tournament? And now that the Lakers are playing against a playoff-quality team in the Phoenix Suns, we’re supposed to believe they’re equipped to deal with this challenge after failing to do so in less pressure-packed regular-season games?
All fair points. But consider the context. The Lakers went 7-6 when James played without Davis, but they won six of their final eight games following a 1-4 start. That captures the Lakers experiencing initial hiccups before Vogel figured out rotations and his players improved their chemistry. The Lakers’ struggles continued only because James then experienced his own injury.
A similar development played out in Game 4 itself. The Lakers recovered from their horrendous third quarter by becoming more efficient in the fourth (27 points on 52.6% shooting). James also scored 11 of his 25 points, and became increasingly aggressive both with scoring and setting up the offense. If not for Marc Gasol committing a turnover at the top of the key, and James and Dennis Schröder missing two open layups while trailing by five with about 90 seconds left, the Lakers arguably could have won Game 4.
Well before that, James also made plays suggesting he made progress with his right ankle injury that sidelined him for a combined 26 games. James threw a nifty behind-the-back pass to Ben McLemore. James then performed a nifty spin move before finishing with a dunk.
“I feel pretty good,” James said. “I continue to work on my body. I continue to work on my ankle. I work on my pace and continue to work on everything that held me out for so long. Every day, I’m putting in timeless work on my body, especially getting it back into full strength. Testing it out on the floor helps a lot.”
Therefore, the 36-year-old James might be primed to be playing at his best just as he’s about to miss his star teammate. And he certainly has enough credentials to show he’s ready for the moment..
James led a Cleveland Cavaliers team without any All-Stars to the 2007 NBA Finals. When Vogel coached the Indiana Pacers while James won two NBA titles in Miami, Vogel noted that game planning for James became even more difficult when he assumed more responsibilities to account for any injuries to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. James helped Cleveland become the only franchise in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 Finals deficit, while defeating a Golden State Warriors team that set the record for most NBA regular-season wins.
James could not win with the Lakers his first season before they had Davis. But consider that the Lakers missed the playoffs during James’ first season largely because of his injury. In the game that he injured his groin, the Lakers defeated the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day and had a respectable 20-14 record. At the time, the Warriors thought internally they would face the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Then, James and the Lakers’ young core all had significant ailments.
“The best teacher in life is experience,” James said. “So for me personally, I look forward to the challenge. However the hand is dealt, I’ll be ready to play.”
Unlike when other NBA stars elevate their games in high-stakes games, James’ importance goes beyond just taking more shots. James’ whole game predicates on making the right basketball play. So even if the Lakers’ supporting cast have experienced inconsistency, James will elevate them putting them in the right position to succeed with open shots at the basket or from behind the perimeter. Expect James to score a lot more points and help his teammates do the same thing, too.
“It’s not about throwing it into ‘Bron the whole time,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said. “Obviously he’s great in his own right. But we have to play basketball.”
Will that be enough for the Lakers to win Game 5 against Phoenix, let alone survive their first-round playoff series and beyond? Who knows.
Suns guard Chris Paul had 18 points and nine assists in what Vogel called “the best game in his series” after having limitations earlier with his injured right shoulder. The Suns have promising depth with Devin Booker (17 points, five assists), Jae Crowder (17 points), Deandre Ayton (14), Cameron Payne (13) and Mikal Bridges (11).
But for those ready to proclaim the Lakers’ season over because they have an injured star player? Consider the Lakers still have another healthy star who remains one of the NBA’s best players partly because of his ability to thrive during tough circumstances
“We’ll see,” James said about his upcoming role, a tone that conveyed more intrigue than uncertainty on what’s ahead.