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Column: LeBron James’ load gets heavier with Anthony Davis’ health in doubt

Lakers forward LeBron James hangs on the rim after throwing down a dunk off an alley-oop from Alex Caruso.
Lakers forward LeBron James hangs on the rim after throwing down a dunk off an alley-oop from Alex Caruso (not pictured) during Game 4 on Sunday afternoon at Staples Center.
(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

As soon as Lakers forward Anthony Davis limped off the court at halftime, his every step made painful by a fresh groin strain, the Lakers’ hopes of repeating as champions fell firmly on LeBron James’ strong, broad shoulders.

James has carried them before. He has lifted them through slumps, elevated them through tense moments in playoff games, earned NBA Finals most valuable player to cap a pandemic-altered season that was as challenging emotionally as it was physically. He has carried teams in each city he has played.

But he’s 36 now, with more mileage on his legs and an ankle injury that cost him 26 regular-season games not so far back in his rearview mirror. It’s fair to wonder if he can do it again, especially given the Phoenix Suns’ pace and decisiveness in carving out a 100-92 victory on Sunday that tied the teams’ first-round playoff series at two games each.

Phoenix’s starters outscored the Lakers’ starters 77-50, with James (25 points) the only Lakers starter to hit double figures. Chris Paul, recovered from a shoulder problem that had limited his shooting, scored 18 points and had a game-high nine assists in demonstrating to an unhappy crowd at Staples Center just how honestly Phoenix had earned its No. 2 seeding.

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“They played well. I tip my hat to them,” James said. “They came in, they played extremely well. And it’s going to be a big-time Game 5 come Tuesday.”

Davis was scheduled to be evaluated after Sunday’s game and coach Frank Vogel said he expected to have more information on Davis’ status on Monday. If Davis can’t play at Phoenix on Tuesday — or if he’s at less than full capability — James will have to carry the Lakers again, and for a while.

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Highlights from the Lakers’ loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 on Sunday.

A second straight title would be significant for James and the Lakers because they’d earn it under circumstances closer to normal than those that prevailed during last season’s bubble-ball tournament. The Lakers didn’t build this roster for one championship, didn’t sacrifice young players who are excelling elsewhere to be one and done with titles and rings with James and Davis in the lineup.

“These shoulders are built for a reason,” James said. “And 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.”

Davis, who missed half of the 72-game regular season because of injuries, was already dealing with a sore knee before he injured his groin on Sunday while driving for a layup in the last minute of the second quarter. He had six points on two-for-nine shooting and had missed all three of his three-point attempts in 19 minutes and 24 seconds of playing time.

“I thought he was laboring a little bit. He was saying that his knee was sore but there was no way he was not going to play,” Vogel said. “I thought he gave a heck of a run at it trying to compete through pain, and then, obviously, he came out with the groin injury.”

James could easily relate to Davis’ plight, having lost a big chunk of his first season as a Laker when he tore a groin muscle on Christmas Day of 2018. James didn’t play again until Jan. 31 and also sat out the final six games of the season with playoff hopes vanquished. He was reluctant to speak about Davis’ injury without knowing the severity of his teammate’s woes, but James remembered going through long, tedious days of rehab to get back out to the court.

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“And I still wasn’t where I was before I tore it,” James said. “So I worked my tail off in the offseason just to get back to playing at an unrestricted level, so I can only speak from my experience.”

Lakers forward LeBron James scores on a layup over Suns center Deandre Ayton.
Lakers forward LeBron James scores on a layup over Suns center Deandre Ayton during Game 4 on Sunday afternoon at Staples Center.
(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

If Davis can’t play on Tuesday, “it’s gonna be a tough blow for our ballclub, but next man up,” James said. “And we’ve been like that all year, and we’re gonna have to be like in a hostile environment in Game 5.”

The Lakers also will need a more focused defensive effort to compete better on Tuesday. Offensively, James said, not much must change from their performance on Sunday though they shot 39.5% from the field (32 for 81).

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“Sometimes it comes down to knocking down shots,” he said. “We’re getting some great looks, and obviously I’m gonna take a look at the film when I get back home, as I wake up from a nap, and see other ways maybe we can exploit their defense. But they’re giving us some good looks and we’re just not knocking them down.

“We’ve had this happen before in the past, but we always trust each other, we’re going to trust the pass, get the ball moving from side to side and trust our shots and get up there and knock them down.”

Most of all, they’ll have to trust in James. “However the hand is dealt,” he said, “I’ll be ready to play it.” The Lakers need it to be a winning hand.

Lakers-Suns schedule for first-round playoff series.
(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

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