The sun is still shining, everyone is still good looking, Disneyland is back open and the infamous traffic isn’t quite as bad as it used to be, but no, Los Angeles is not particularly happy right now because the Lakers just don’t look like … the Lakers.
Snoop Dogg is mad. Magic Johnson isn’t pleased, either. Shaquille O’Neal had some sniping criticism. Local talk radio did not hold back in its frank assessments.
Yep, here we are, a week and a half into the NBA playoffs, and the defending champions find themselves in a two-or-die hole and on the verge of being bounced into an empty summer.
Tuesday’s night thumping at the hands of the Phoenix Suns put LeBron James and company in a spot they never expected to be in at this juncture: banged up, frustrated and being comprehensively outplayed.
There is still the opportunity to turn it around, of course, but a couple of realities have become painfully clear over the course of this first round Western Conference series. One is that the purple-and-gold aren’t close to finding the title rhythm that spurred them to a bubble championship eight months ago.
Another is that Anthony Davis’ absence doesn’t just matter against the best two or three teams in the league, but against any playoff challenger that can play with intensity, spirit and shooting ability.
And finally, that James himself cannot be expected to shoulder an unrealistic burden of attainment, just because, you know, he’s done it plenty of times in the past.
“(James) stumbled,” wrote Bill Plaschke in the L.A. Times. “He fumbled. He threw a pass into the seats. He clanked shots off the iron. He failed to attack. He could not inspire. This is the night that a rejuvenated LeBron James was supposed to ignite greatness. It was, instead, a night where an aging LeBron James elicited only pity.”
James is the best player in the world but the NBA is moving fast and trending young and it’s no longer a given that he’s the best on the court on any given night. Game 5 was controlled by Devin Booker’s 30-point haul, the young guard standing tall when the Suns’ own talisman Chris Paul aggravated his ongoing shoulder injury in a rebounding collision.
All of which leaves the Suns, one of the most disrespected No. 2 seeds in recent memory, one more big performance away from sliding into the Western Conference semifinals and flipping this postseason on its head.
No one gave Phoenix a realistic shot. Heck, teams like the Clippers spent the closing week of the regular season trying to lose so that they’d avoid the Lakers in the second round. But the Suns are doing it, making L.A. look fallible in the process and leaving their opponent as the ones that need to rise from the ashes.
For the Lakers, all the supporting pieces that were supposed to come together at this time crumbled on Tuesday. James himself was decidedly poor, finishing with 24 points but nothing that smacked of inspiration. He left the court with more than five minutes remaining to undergo maintenance treatment on his ankle. It didn’t matter by then. The Lakers had gone behind by 30 at halftime and this thing was in the books before it ever got the chance to become competitive.
Perhaps Thursday’s Game 6 will be different. If it isn’t, well, that’s it, and the power struggle of this postseason suddenly shifts completely. Obviously, getting ahead of a James-led team and actually putting them away are two different things, but the Suns have strength and desire and are going to fight to make this their time, despite the status of who they’re up against.
“The Suns or any team playing LeBron, they don’t have to win four out of seven, you have to win four out of six,” insisted FS1’s Nick Wright on “First Things First.” “If it gets to a Game 7 you’re cooked.”
Maybe, although FOX Bet has the Suns listed at +120 to close out the series on Thursday, with the Lakers at +215 to win the series.
Davis’ participation remains a point of scrutiny, with James saying postgame he would prepare assuming his friend and teammate would be missing again. The Lakers’ star big man was out 36 games with Achilles problems, while James himself sustained a high ankle sprain mid-campaign. Those factors combined helped push the Lakers down into the 7-seed, requiring them to survive a game in the play-in tournament.
James was philosophical on Tuesday, and why not, he’s seen tough spots before and come through them. This one is a threat that’s real and present though, a battle of wills and energy, where nothing but two straight victories will suffice.
“We got our ass kicked, it’s just that simple,” he told reporters. “We’ve got to better, obviously. It is literally win or go home at that point. You shoot all the bullets you got and you throw the gun too.”
For the revival to happen, a few things must take place. The Suns need to stop catching fire. James needs to be the fullest, most dominant version of himself.
And the Lakers need to start, once more, looking like the Lakers.
Here’s what others have said …
Colin Cowherd, The Herd: “I believe the Phoenix Suns, when Chris Paul is 75-80% healthy, I believe the Suns are better than the Lakers … even when AD plays.”
Skip Bayless, Undisputed: “That was the first time in all my years watching LeBron, that I sat back and said: ‘Is he starting to hit the wall?’”
Shannon Sharpe, Undisputed: “LeBron is the ring leader, he gets the lion’s share of the credit when things go well, so it’s only fair I give him lion’s share of the blame when things are bad. I expected him to be better.”