The burden of winning a championship was replaced by the cost of it for the Los Angeles Lakers, whose bid for a repeat was doomed the moment the NBA decided to start this season in December instead of January.
The 71-day “break” after the Orlando bubble begat the injuries, which begat the buzzsaw wearing purple and orange jerseys instead of purple and gold. In today’s era, it would almost seem to take a disaster for a defending champion that looks like itself on the outside to find itself on the outside of the playoffs after the first series of eliminations.
The Phoenix Suns did the honors, a worthy opponent who continued the theme of new blood upstaging the old monarchs in these playoffs. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton ushered the Lakers out of the paint, almost dismissively and with a moxie that will not go away once the Lakers regroup and recharge.
It was an open secret that the NBA’s final four from Orlando would have a tough time rekindling the magic, and only Denver remains, awaiting a second-round matchup with Phoenix. Boston could never find itself, leading to wholesale organizational change. The Miami Heat pride themselves on being as tough as they come, but went out with a whimper of a sweep to the Milwaukee Bucks after battling out of an early-season fatigue and COVID-filled hole.
Believing the Lakers could do something unprecedented almost solely stems from a belief in LeBron James and his Herculean ability to make disparate pieces work in short order, to make the details of adversity obsolete, and you half-expected him to have an opportunity to “earn his damn respect” once again as a last team standing.
But this ain’t “Space Jam 2” — the movie James plugged in reply to a question about playing in the Summer Olympics — it’s an unprecedented time in the NBA and a tough time to repeat as a champion with little rest.
It was further confirmed when LeBron James’ ankle turned inward against Atlanta, and when Anthony Davis went down the first time, the second time, the last time. Both James and Davis spoke on the frustration of not being able to see this through, of not being able to get to full strength.
“I do think we had a group that can repeat this, had it not been for the injuries,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We were 21-6 when Anthony Davis goes down, you know, and then ’Bron goes down shortly after that. So it basically derailed our run.”
The flashes were there, as you knew the Lakers were playing possum just to get their sea legs under them to have something in reserve for this time of year. Even in Game 3, some of the showboating and swagger returned as they overwhelmed the young Suns.
But it wasn’t sustainable, and what was shown in the Suns’ destruction of the Lakers was turnabout fair play, perhaps some basketball karma rearing its head in the form of Booker barely catching net early on and barking at Laker reserves in the final moments.
“It has been mentally draining,” James said. “Every team has to deal with it, obviously, but with us and Miami going the long haul in the bubble and then coming right back on a short notice. It’s been very draining.”
The Laker frustration was as evident off the floor as it was on it, the main figures letting you know what they thought of the NBA’s plan to cram in as many games as possible this season to get next year back on the regular schedule.
“Injuries, I think that was the most draining mentally thing for us,” Davis said. “When we had our full team, you saw how good we were. And then not being able to have it, for a lot [of time] this season, it was tough.”
Same chapter and verse, but to be fair, injuries are part of every champion’s story on a journey to repeat. Heck, Davis’ limping around on a strained left groin was a perfect contrast to his first season in L.A., where he played through injuries and didn’t look worse for wear, especially in the bubble where he made an early case for Finals MVP against Miami.
You hope Davis’ psyche wasn’t as tender as his body, that he didn’t risk further injury because a Laker luminary like Snoop Dogg unleashed his frustrations with Davis’ injuries on Instagram or Charles Barkley calling him “Street Clothes” when he missed Game 5.
“It comes with the territory, when you're a player of my caliber,” Davis said. “Guys are going to expect things of you, say things to you, whatever their reason is. My job is on the floor. And I know what I go through, what I play through. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone [on the outside].”
The way the Lakers are constructed, having two of arguably the five best players in the game, relies upon the superstars to be superstars, to play at the peak of their abilities for the corresponding pieces to work. Lakers president Rob Pelinka tried to replenish the roster after the bubble with Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell, among others, fresher legs (theoretically) to put next to his older horses who went through the strenuous bubble experience.
It didn’t pan out that way, but it was exacerbated when James and Davis went down with injuries. And for planning forward, it must be accepted that the awkwardly built Davis will miss time with injury or have to deal with something that’s bothersome — it’s part of his jacket.
And while James will turn 37 this December and is steadily performing ahead of what athletes his age should be doing, this team looks to be dependent on him, and it’s impossible to say he doesn’t want it that way.
Frank Vogel's defensive tactics helped the Lakers to the top of the league again, utilizing Davis as a centerpiece. The offense is built around James, as one could argue it should be.
But the league changes, faster than ever from here, and nothing can stay the same longer than two years. Despite James being a fixture in the NBA Finals — this season will be the first since 2010 that won’t feature either James or Stephen Curry — James found a way to change with the times, to retrofit his game and the teams he played on to go with the tide, if not lead it altogether.
It’s new blood, sure, but also the same stars forming in different constellations across the landscape. It won’t get any easier, and next time, it may not be a poked eye or stretched groin or sore Achilles that keeps the Lakers from their next opportunity.
The Lakers better hope other teams aren’t just better.
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