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Column: Lakers are in trouble when LeBron James can’t carry the load

LeBron James makes a pass after driving to basket against Mikal Bridges.
Lakers forward LeBron James makes a pass after driving to the basket against the Suns’ Mikal Bridges during Game 5 on Tuesday night in Phoenix.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

He stumbled. 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.

This was going to be the game where James proved he could still single-handedly carry a team to a critical playoff victory.

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This was, instead, the game that showed he may never be capable of such singular heroics again.

This was going to be a delicious blast from the past.

The Lakers, with Anthony Davis sidelined, score 10 points in the second quarter and fall behind by more than 30 in a Game 5 loss to the Phoenix Suns.

This was, instead, a scary look at the future.

With injured Anthony Davis on the bench in a critical Game 5 of an NBA first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, when he was charged with leading the Lakers by going solo.

The Lakers responded by going so low.

His teammates didn’t connect, his body couldn’t react, his game couldn’t elevate, and his team got waxed.

It was Phoenix 115, Lakers 85, on a night when the ending of the Lakers’ championship defense seemed near and clear.

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With the Suns leading three games to two in the best-of-seven series, if Davis does not return from a strained groin to join James in Game 6 at Staples Center on Thursday, the Lakers season is cooked.

They are done because James, despite flashes of greatness while playing with Davis earlier in this postseason, can no longer do it himself.

In the first two minutes of his postgame videoconference Tuesday, when asked about the embarrassment, James said, “I don’t know,” twice.

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Highlights of the Lakers’ 115-85 loss to the Suns on June 1, 2021, in Phoenix.

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Didn’t he always used to know?

During that same brief initial period, he mentioned an action involving a certain body part twice, and it didn’t sound pretty.

“We got our ass kicked, it’s just that simple,” he said, later adding, “I mean, they pretty much kicked our ass, there’s nothing else really to say.”

Before Tuesday’s game, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said plenty when asked what he expected of James.

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“He’s going to play great. … I think we can expect that. … That’s what he’s been throughout his career,” Vogel said. “You know he’s going to rise to the challenge.”

Vogel was wrong. Everyone was wrong.

At age 36, in his 15th postseason, having participated in more playoff games than anyone in NBA history, James finally showed his wrinkles. Playing on a tender ankle, playing without any inside muscle or outside help, James finally showed his frailty.

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Yes, this is the same guy who recently won the play-in game against Golden State with a three-pointer, the same guy who controlled the crucial minutes in the Game 3 victory over Phoenix. But those heroics occurred when he shared the court with Davis.

While he proclaimed this week that he could handle the burden himself by saying, “These shoulders were built for a reason,” when it came time to prove it Tuesday, those shoulders sagged.

He walked off the court and headed to the locker room with 5:40 remaining in the fourth quarter to begin treatment for Game 6, but he was gone long before that.

He scored 24 points, but it was such a soft 24 points, the Lakers were a minus-24 when he was on the court, making him statistically the worst player in the game.

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Instead of charging the rim as he’s done on so many June nights, he hung out on the perimeter as if it were November. He actually took one more three-point attempt than two-point attempts. He fought his way to exactly zero free throws.

Instead of jabbing, he lightly sparred, grabbing only five rebounds, with no steals, no blocked shots, and no push.

During a second quarter in which the Lakers scored only 10 points, sealing their fate before halftime, there was one sequence during which James threw away a pass, was blocked by Torrey Craig on a layup, then badly missed another layup and awkwardly fell backward into a photographer while trying to save the rebound.

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He did have seven assists, but his teammates mostly failed to convert their shots, failed to capitalize on their opportunities, failed to do anything but walk around lifeless and listless. If they still believed in the power of LeBron, they didn’t show it. If they truly believed they could win without both Davis and James, they didn’t act like it.

Dennis Schroder, acquired exactly for nights like this, was scoreless with nine missed shots, a huge flop on a giant stage. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, battling a sore left knee after missing Game 4, took only one shot and missed it. Andre Drummond made two baskets. Markieff Morris, starting in place of Davis, made one. The reserves jacked up 20 three-point attempts and made five.

“We’re getting some really good looks. … We’re literally just not making shots,” James said. “It’s my job to get guys open looks and finding guys and putting guys in rhythm and also staying in rhythm myself, but we’re just not making many shots.”

What they are making is the worst kind of LeBron James playoff history. This is the first time his teams have lost consecutive games in a first-round series, the first time his teams have trailed after a first-round Game 5, and he’s on the verge of being knocked out in the first round for the first time in his career. At this rate, his five-game scoring average of 22.2 points will be the lowest postseason mark of his career.

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But then again, James is 4-1 in the playoffs after losses of at least 30 points and is the league’s leading scorer in playoff elimination games.

“It’s literally win or go home at that point,” he said. “You shoot all the bullets you’ve got and throw the gun, too.”

Yet that might not be enough.

“We’ll find out what we’re made of and we’ll find out how bad we want this,” said Vogel.

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Historically, the Game 5 winner of a 2-all series has advanced 82.5% of the time. After Tuesday‘s performance without Anthony Davis, there seems to be a 100% chance the Lakers don’t survive.

“I look forward to the environment. … I look forward to the moment, look forward to the challenge, and see what brings out the best in me and my teammates,” said James.

It’s long been foolish to doubt him. But after an ominous night in the desert, that doubt has never felt so real.


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