Opinion: LeBron James, supporting cast let down Lakers in Anthony Davis’ absence, and now season is on the brink

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·5 min read
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As he spent his entire NBA career embracing big expectations and intense scrutiny, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James maintained he could carry an extra burden without Anthony Davis. But in the Lakers' 115-85 Game 5 loss to the Phoenix Suns, James discovered even he could not completely offset Davis’ absence stemmed from his strained left groin.

“We got our ass kicked,” James said. “It’s that simple.”

As they fought through overlapping injuries and integrated new players all season, the Lakers often vowed to embrace the "next man-up mentality.” But no role player emerged to make life easier for James, and the Lakers are now down 3-2 in the first-round series.

“Everybody has to have confidence in each other,” Lakers guard Dennis Schroder said. “The shots are going to fall. Individually, we have to take pride in making them shots.”

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Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James reacts against the Phoenix Suns during his team's Game 5 loss.
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James reacts against the Phoenix Suns during his team's Game 5 loss.

The Lakers didn’t make many shots overall (35.4%) and from deep (34.3%), and they didn’t defend well either. Devin Booker (30 points), Cameron Payne (16) and Mikal Bridges (13) led the Suns in scoring as star teammate Chris Paul missed the fourth quarter after aggravating his right shoulder.

The Lakers could become the sixth NBA team to lose in the first round a year after winning an NBA title because both their star player and supporting cast failed to seize the moment.

James finished with a team-high 24 points while shooting 9-of-19 from the field and 6-of-10 from 3-point range along with seven assists. He opened the game taking five of the team’s first seven shots, and his assist numbers would have been much higher had teammates hit open shots.

“I thought he found a perfect balance. He attacked to score and he was finding people for open shots all night long while he was in there,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “You have to knock down shots. It’s a make or miss league. We’re just not shooting the ball really well right now. But I thought he had a good balance of looking to attack and score, and looking to create for others.

But even if James has thrived his entire 18-year NBA career as a scorer and facilitator , it would have been understandable and perhaps needed if he became more selfish. Instead, James, often passed out of double teams as soon as he saw them. He settled for jump shots instead of attacking the basket. James even smiled and slapped his head after missing an open layup in the third quarter.

“I play the game the right way no matter the circumstances,” James said. “Getting guys open looks when I draw two or three. If I’m in a one-on-one coverage or I feel like I’m in a lane or I have an angle, then I’ll be able to take it as well. I don’t predetermine anything I’m going to do. I never played the game that way. It’s all about read and reacting, and living with the results. Obviously the results tonight wasn't to the liking of what I would like it to be. But I learn from that and move on.”

James' teammates did not step up. Schroder, whom the Lakers acquired last summer from Oklahoma City after he won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, had zero points and missed all nine of his shots, including four from 3-point range. Schroder said the Lakers’ shooting issues “starts with me.” But it continued everywhere else. Neither Wesley Matthews (1-of-5), Alex Caruso (2-of-8) nor Ben McLemore (0-for-5) fared much better.

“I got to play my game,” Schroder said. “I got to be aggressive and be Dennis. You can’t control if the ball is going in. But at the end of the day, I’m going to stay aggressive and keep shooting them. I got to make them. Everybody got to make them.”

As much as the Lakers’ championship history has centered on star power, it has also reflected the franchise’s ability to have another key contributor thrive when a star player needed help.

Michael Cooper helped defend the opponent’s best player during the Showtime era. Robert Horry essentially salved the team’s 2002 playoff series against the Sacramento Kings by sinking a game winner after Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal failed to do so. Derek Fisher nailed two critical 3-pointers in the 2009 NBA Finals after Bryant faced double teams. Fisher, Ron Artest and Sasha Vujačić all made key shots in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics while Bryant struggled.

The Lakers offered no such moment in Game 5 against Phoenix.

“Our shooters have to figure it out. We have to continue to work on our execution offensively to see the ball go in the basket,” Vogel said. “We have to be creative and find ways to get Dennis going. He’s a hell of a player and has been huge for us all year.”

Vogel eventually tried getting creative by expanding his rotation in the second half to Montrezl Harrell, McLemore and Talen Horton-Tucker. Perhaps those players deserved playing time earlier. Still, it’s too easy to blame rotations or the lack of continuity this season for the Lakers’ shortcomings.

The importance of James being dominant will be heightened as he conceded that the "mindset for me is as if AD won't be in the game in Game 6."

“It’s literally win or go home at that point. You shoot all the bullets you got and throw the gun, too,” James said. I’m looking forward to that environment. Obviously the Laker faithful will give us a lot of energy. I’m looking forward to the challenge and see if it brings the best out of me and my teammates.”

Considering the current circumstances in Game 5 could neither bring out the best in James nor his teammates, the Lakers have not offered reassuring signs they can return to L.A. and rewrite a much better script.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LeBron James, Lakers' supporting cast let them down sans Anthony Davis