Column: Magical Lakers season could vanish not only without a title, but without a trace
Their last shot, if it is indeed their last shot, was an ominous sign of the bleakness that awaited them.
Tuesday night, March 10, Staples Center, Lakers trailing the Brooklyn Nets by two, Anthony Davis swings out for an open three-point attempt in the final seconds.
Clank, miss, and Lakers are stunned in a way that could symbolize a season.
They have a clear chance at greatness, and it’s bricked at the buzzer. They are in the perfect place at the perfect time, and then get perfectly gutted.
If the NBA season is indeed done, there are no winners, but no team is hurt worse than the one with the best player, the best chemistry and the best championship chances.
In a lost summer, no team loses more than the Lakers.
The NBA continues to review its options for resuming play, and that includes some form of finishing the regular season ahead of the playoffs.
Everything is relative in these pandemic days, of course, and no measurements truly matter beyond being well and staying safe. Also, this Lakers family has already been irrevocably shattered by the tragic Jan. 26 death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash.
But strictly in a basketball sense, judged solely from what could happen on the court, the Lakers face one of the more unsettling bits of misfortune in team history.
Enjoying their most memorable moment in nearly a decade, the Lakers could soon watch it all disappear like a pile of confetti under a baseline mop.
No other team has a more tenuous grip on a lofty position. No team would fall so far, so hard, and with such potential long-term ramifications.
Let’s just all admit it, shall we? If the season was completed — and that’s a long shot at this point — the Lakers likely would have won their 17th NBA championship. Any doubt about their status as favorites was surely removed when they defeated their top two challengers in the final March weekend before the league shut down.
Remember that? It seems like it was last year, but it was only several weeks ago that they outplayed the Milwaukee Bucks on a Friday night and outfought the Clippers on Sunday afternoon. Both games occurred in a crowded and emotional Staples Center, the sort of environment that breeds basketball success but also, it turns out, is dangerous to one’s health.
If one game could decide the NBA MVP, it was Lakers vs. Bucks, and LeBron James came out on top against Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Two days later, Anthony Davis missed that shot. The next day, the league locked its doors, pulled down its shingle, and went into hibernation. Seven weeks later, despite several full-court heaves disguised as legitimate restarting plans, it increasingly appears the rest of the regular season and playoffs will disappear.
Also vanishing will be a purple-and-golden opportunity the Lakers may not have again.
Gone could be the renaissance season of LeBron James. Seriously, what are the odds that the aging King can pull this kind of injury-free, MVP performance again? How much longer can he lead the league in assists and the Lakers in energy? This could have been perhaps his finest comeback moment. This also could have been his last best comeback chance. Next season he’ll be 36. No NBA MVP has ever been as old.
LeBron James doesn’t want to hear any more about how a break in the schedule might be good for his 35-year-old body. ‘It’s actually the opposite for me,’ he says.
Gone could be potential free agent Anthony Davis. This seems unlikely because he pushed for a trade here and even gave up $4 million to give the Lakers a chance to add Kawhi Leonard. A.D. seems sold. He says he wants to help build a champion here. Throughout the season, a new contract seemed like a done deal. But this is a new normal. During a national quarantine that has kept families apart for weeks, people are developing a keener sense of roots. Davis’ roots are squarely in Chicago. The Bulls front office is undergoing a makeover. Anything could happen, especially if Davis’ last memory of L.A. is not a championship parade, but that missed shot.
Gone, also, could be the revived seasons of Dwight Howard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Avery Bradley, and the revelation that was Alex Caruso. These guys formed an unlikely crew that wonderfully supported James and Davis. Unlike last season, everyone has bought in. Watching them felt like watching the Dodgers famed stunt men of 1988. They happily and selflessly do the dirty work in part because they know they are part of something special. Will a doomed season end that feeling? Can they easily rediscover this once-in-a-lifetime magic?
On the court, anyway, the Lakers truly made some magic.
They won 17 of their first 19 games. They won 14 consecutive road games, the second-longest streak in franchise history. They finished with 25 wins in their last 32 games.
James hit a fallaway, go-ahead jumper with 30 seconds left to give the Lakers a throwback Sunday afternoon win against Boston. Then, after being pushed around twice, the Lakers punched back against the Clippers on that Sunday in March.
Before NBA play can resume, a number of medical protocols should be in place to protect players, staff and arena workers. Medical experts say that is a problem.
“We some dawgs,” said JaVale McGee after that game, and wouldn’t you have liked to see those two teams playing later again this month? Wouldn’t a canceled season feel like a loss for the entire city?
But make no mistake. Despite potential defections in other parts of their roster, the Clippers’ stars Leonard and Paul George are still under contract, still in their prime, and will have other chances.
For the current group of Lakers, this could be their best chance. For LeBron James, it could be his last chance.
They deserve for their final shot to be followed by “I Love L.A.” They, instead, face the real possibility of it bouncing off the rim, falling helplessly to the court, and disappearing into an enduring silence.
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