LOS ANGELES — Back in December, the Lakers didn’t miss a beat.
As the season tipped off, Los Angeles looked like the team that smoked cigars the final night in the bubble. The Lakers picked up their outrageous — and expensive — rings, blended in the newcomers, rolled them out on the court with two of the five best players walking the face of the earth, and got back to the business of tearing up the NBA. The Lakers started the season 21-6, and the only real threat seemed the potential of a team in Brooklyn.
Then Anthony Davis went out with calf and Achilles soreness. Followed by LeBron James with a high ankle sprain. Despite that, Lakers players didn’t sound concerned. Lakers fans and most observers took their cue from that and said the same — as long as LeBron and Davis were healthy come the playoffs, the Lakers would flip the switch and be the team to beat again.
It’s time to be concerned.
After an ugly loss to the Raptors Sunday night, the Lakers players vented frustration and sounded like a team that has lost its way.
Kyle Kuzma called the Lakers “disconnected.”
“When we’re in connected we know what kind of team we can be, we saw it early in the season, but I would agree right now we are a little disconnected,” Davis said after the 121-114 loss.
That loss had the couple thousand fans in Staples Center groaning — the Lakers were handled by a Raptors team that is not even going to make the play-in games in the East. (Yes, mathematically they are alive, but in reality Toronto players can start making hotel reservations in Cancun). That was the Lakers’ third straight loss, and they have now dropped six-of-seven.
More concerning for the Lakers, LeBron checked out of the game with 6:42 remaining and did not return due to soreness in the ankle that just cost him 20 games.
“The first half it feels really good, warming up for the game it feels really good, but at halftime it gets sore on me. It feels tight,” LeBron said of his right ankle.
“His ankle developed some soreness, we decided not to bring him back,” was how Lakers coach Frank Vogel described it. “We’ll see how he’s feeling tomorrow.”
Tomorrow is when the Lakers face the red-hot Denver Nuggets, winners of 9-of-10.
The Lakers may well be without Dennis Schroder for that game as well, he missed the game against Toronto due to league health and safety protocols. How long Schroder will be out depends on whether he tested positive, is in contact tracing, or had a false positive that kept him out for a game [as of this writing, we do not know the situation].
The ankle issue clearly bothered LeBron well before he left the game. He was not moving like he normally does — he wasn’t attacking the rim or glass, not chasing loose balls, and not defending at his normal level.
It was much the same with Davis, who is the anchor of the Lakers defense but was not playing near that level on Sunday (or since his return). He looked stuck in the mud for stretches.
Without those two leading the way, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam carved the Lakers up. Siakam had 39 points on 15-of-26 shooting, Lowry 37 points and he hit 8-of-13 threes.
With the playoffs just three weeks away, LeBron and the Lakers don’t look like a team building postseason momentum.
“I think our team is predicated on health, that is the No. 1 thing for our ballclub,” LeBron said. “Our team needs to be full…. That’s going to be the biggest thing for us, more than the games we play, we need to be healthy.”
Each of those frustrated Lakers players also said what keeps them going is they know how good they can be — they remember those first 27 games. They believe they can get back to that level.
“We know what we’re going to look like when we’re whole,” Vogel said.
Can the Lakers get whole in the next three weeks? That’s a legitimate concern.