LOS ANGELES — With the Lakers on their way to a 131-120 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday, a clearly frustrated LeBron James walked off the court to the locker room with about 15 seconds remaining in the contest.
While the Bucks (48-14) were holding the ball, waiting for time to expire, James was already walking through the corridors of the Staples Center.
His early departure was noticed almost instantly by those who attended the game and television viewers. And it even appeared as if Giannis Antetokounmpo made an initial move to head toward the Lakers’ bench to exchange pleasantries, but reversed course after realizing his fellow superstar was nowhere to be found.
Once again, James was on the receiving end of criticism — this time for not sticking around to congratulate the opponent.
“And ...” he told Yahoo Sports after the loss when notified that his early exit was being condemned. “They’re always going to find something to criticize.”
But the scrutiny about his early exit will pale in comparison to the consequences the franchise would face should James and the Lakers fail to make the postseason.
Changes most certainly would be made — likely starting with head coach Luke Walton — before addressing a roster void of a true star other than James. The majority of the playoffs would be overshadowed with the comings and goings of the Lakers. It would be an intense, pressurized offseason for those in charge of reshaping the franchise.
But that’s the price of doing business with the best player in the game. With what’s left of James’ prime years, there is a perpetual obligation to surround him with the talent to contend for championships.
James has been a playoff participant for 13 straight years, with the only absences occurring in his first two NBA seasons.
Frustration and unease have already set in within the organization regarding its playoff hopes. But probably the most worrisome issue among some players is the fear that not everyone believes a playoff berth is attainable.
The Lakers (30-32) are 3.5 games back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. This is a team that hasn’t strung together back-to-back wins in a month and a half.
Time is running out.
“We’re aware of it,” Walton said. “We don’t try to harp on it too much. I say it all the time, the way we’re going to be at our best is if we stay present and stay in our mindset on what we're doing in practice, games, day by day. And that's how we’re going to get where we want to get to. But the group is very aware of where we’re at and what needs to happen.”
What can’t happen are inbound turnovers late in the contest following a timeout.
The Bucks were up three with 1:54 remaining and the Lakers had possession. Walton called a timeout with the intention of getting James freed up.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was the inbounder underneath the visiting team’s basket. He had trouble getting the ball in and dangerously lobbed the ball to James in the paint, but James was doubled by Ersan İlyasova and Malcolm Brogdon.
IIyasova managed to get a hand on the ball, tapping it out to teammate Khris Middleton, who then found Brogdon in the corner for a three. Just like that, the Bucks were up six. That was the game.
Walton said that play was on him.
“I’ll take that responsibility,” he said. “But we had called a timeout to get a play, I wanted to get something for LeBron coming downhill. I took for granted that we’d get the ball inbounds. So, that’s on me. Again, we had an extra timeout and we got to take it. We can’t afford to turn that ball over right there. But they came up with a press, and we didn’t get open and at that point, we should have just called that last timeout. … It was a costly play in the game.”
The Lakers can’t afford these sort of mishaps. There is too much at stake. Jobs across the board are on the line.
Walton describing that inbound sequence as costly is appropriate, but costly will be a more fitting description for the organization if James is an onlooker come playoff time.
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