His season was not completed — not but, anyway — when LeBron James grabbed a seat on the far finish of the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench on Tuesday night time in Phoenix. He would sometimes method a teammate or an assistant in order that he might lean in shut for a one-sided dialog. But he in any other case appeared resigned to the fact of the state of affairs.
The Lakers have been getting routed by the Suns in Game 6 of their first-round playoff collection, and James — such an indomitable power all through his 18-year-old profession, however now going through an early summer season — was oddly powerless to cease it.
Perhaps there was hope, in some distant nook of Lakerland, that he might muster extra of his acquainted magic to assist the crew keep away from elimination two days later in Los Angeles. Instead, the Lakers have been sure for extra of the identical: extra offensive fireworks from the Suns, extra disappointment, extra questions on their future.
The shock was not a lot that the second-seeded Suns gained the best-of-seven collection, clinching a visit to the Western Conference semifinals with their 113-100 victory in Game 6 on Thursday night time. Rather, it was the way in which by which they did it — by successful the ultimate two video games of the collection towards the defending N.B.A. champions so convincingly.
For the Lakers, it was a depressing coda to their transient reign atop the league.
“It’s been draining,” James mentioned, referring to the previous 18 months. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally draining.”
Devin Booker of the Suns is without doubt one of the youthful gamers threatening James’s throne.Credit…Harry How/Getty Images
By any goal measure, the Lakers confronted their share of obstacles. Their run to final season’s championship got here in the course of a pandemic and stretched into October. The 2020-21 season began about two months later. Despite the quick break, the Lakers bought off to a robust begin, going 21-6 earlier than accidents slowed them down. They ultimately slipped into the playoffs as a No. 7 seed, and solely after enjoying their means in.
“I just think the whole thing was a challenge, to play all the way into October and start the season as quickly as we did,” Coach Frank Vogel mentioned. “It was going to be an uphill battle.”
There is an enormous “what if,” after all: What if Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ All-Star energy ahead, had remained wholesome towards the Suns? The Lakers had a 2-1 collection lead when Davis strained his groin in Game four. Sensing weak point, the Suns pounced to even the collection. Davis was in avenue garments for Game 5, which the Suns gained by 30 factors, after which spent solely 5 minutes 25 seconds on the court docket in Game 6 earlier than he left in ache, carried out for the night time and for the season.
Davis is very gifted and helped gas the Lakers’ championship, however no person is accusing him of being the sturdiest participant within the league. Prone to accidents for a lot of his profession, he missed about two months this season with a calf pressure, and his issues within the playoffs price the Lakers on the worst time.
“We had the pieces,” Davis mentioned. “We just couldn’t stay healthy. A lot of that is on me.”
James, 36, was not resistant to damage, both. He sprained his proper ankle in March and missed a complete of 26 video games earlier than the playoffs. On Thursday, he tried to tow the Lakers again from a 29-point deficit, serving to reduce it to 10 within the fourth quarter. He completed with 29 factors, 9 rebounds and seven assists, however acknowledged that his ankle was nonetheless bothering him. He mentioned he was wanting ahead to a full low season.
“It’s going to work wonders for me,” he mentioned, indicating that he wouldn’t play within the Olympics.
The brightest star within the collection was the Suns’ Devin Booker, who, at 24, has formally arrived as one of many league’s premier gamers. On Thursday, he scored 47 factors and shot eight of 10 from past the Three-point line. When James made his first journey to the playoffs, with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2006, Booker was 9 years outdated. After Thursday’s recreation, James autographed his jersey and gave it to him.
“I love everything about D-Book,” James mentioned. “He continues to make the jump.”
While the Suns go about making ready for the Denver Nuggets within the subsequent spherical, the Lakers will start the arduous work of addressing the place they go from right here.
Just 5 gamers — James, Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Marc Gasol — are beneath contract for subsequent season, and Montrezl Harrell has a participant possibility. (In a contractual quirk, the Lakers additionally owe Luol Deng, who final performed for the Lakers in 2017, $5 million.) The large earners, although, are James, Davis and Caldwell-Pope, who, mixed, are due practically $90 million — a sum that, due to salary-cap restrictions, will restrict the Lakers’ skill to make vital strikes in free company. The Lakers are unlikely to bear any excessive makeovers. And they may wind up paying a hefty luxurious tax in the event that they re-sign a few of their very own free brokers.
James mentioned he had religion in Rob Pelinka, the crew’s basic supervisor.
“I will have some input,” James mentioned, “but he always asks my input.”
No one is about to really feel sorry for the Lakers. Davis compelled his option to Los Angeles. James is starring in a serious movement image this summer season. And the Lakers, with all of the inherent benefits as a big-market franchise, gained all of it final fall. So spare the tears.
But the highway does appear a bit unsure for them, and for James particularly. One of the sport’s nice opponents, he was the sixth-oldest participant within the league this season. (Worth noting: The two oldest gamers, Udonis Haslem and Anderson Varejao, mixed to look in six video games and rating 17 factors.) In two of the final three seasons, James sustained critical accidents after avoiding them for many of his profession. No athlete is immortal.
Now James is combating the inevitable results of age whereas making an attempt to beat back a gaggle of up-and-comers like Booker — “Young guns,” James referred to as them — who’re decided to grab their rightful share of the stage. Perhaps they have already got. James was requested whether or not their presence would inspire him to come back again stronger.
“I don’t need motivation from anybody in this league,” he mentioned. “I motivate myself.”