LOS ANGELES — LeBron James lay motionless on the ground, and it initially seemed uncertain how long it would take for him to stand up.
The Los Angeles Lakers star had just fallen awkwardly after driving to the basket while Golden State Warriors defender Draymond Green defended him. The officials determined that Green did not commit a flagrant foul. He was simply just trying to defend in his intense nature. Still, Green inadvertently poked James in the eye, forcing him down for the count.
“Draymond’s finger or thumb went directly into my eye,” James said. “That’s why I was down. I was making sure I was okay, making sure I wasn’t bleeding and making sure I could see at least a little bit before I could finish the game.”
Fortunately for the Lakers, James could. Only minutes after that happened, James pulled up for a 34-foot shot that was notable in many ways.
The go-ahead 3-pointer ultimately secured a 103-100 win over the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday at Staples Center, which ensured a No. 7 seed and first-round meeting against the second-seeded Phoenix Suns beginning on Sunday. James, whose deep shot gave the Lakers a 103-100 cushion with 58.2 seconds, made it over Warriors sharpshooter Stephen Curry. And the moment marked another form of adversity for the Lakers regarding James’ health. After all, James noted that he saw “three rims” when he took the shot because of blurry vision.
“I practice enough and work on my game,” James said. “Because of the man above and a lot of practice, I was able to drain it.”
Sure, James may have been dramatic. Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum tweeted about James’ apparent acting skills on the play, which might be a sneak preview for “Space Jam 2” this summer. Yet, the moment captured a pressing question that has captured the Lakers’ season and their play-in tournament game against the Warriors.
Are the Lakers equipped to defend their NBA championship after dealing with the season-long challenges of injuries, a condensed schedule and a new roster? Or will they eventually become vulnerable?
“Only time will tell. But it was good to get that first punch,” James said. “Mike Tyson always said, ‘Everyone has a plan until you get in the ring and you get punched.’ We did that and it felt good. It wasn’t comfortable, but we were able to settle and bring the fight.”
The Lakers initially did not look ready to bring the fight.
They looked rusty with their conditioning. They looked awful with their chemistry. They looked frustrated with the officiating. It all made for delicious drama that made the NBA play-in tournament so entertaining. But it also made for legitimate concern that the Lakers’ championship hopes would end before the playoffs even started.
After spending the last week fighting off rust from prolonged absences from various ailments, James, Anthony Davis and Dennis Schroder still looked rusty. They combined to shoot 2-of-20 on the first half. Green bullied Davis in the post by either forcing him to pass elsewhere, stuffing him at the rim or just ripping the ball away completely. After receiving the starting nod at center, Andre Drummond looked as ineffective as he had all season both on offense and defense. In one sequence, Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins blocked James’ jump shot only for him to throw up another shot that hit off the side of the backboard.
If that image reminded you of Clippers forward Paul George throwing up a similar shot in the bubble, it should. The Lakers played just like how the Clippers did when they squandered a 3-1 playoff series lead to the Denver Nuggets amid disjointed chemistry, overlapping injuries and frustrations with the calls. Meanwhile, the Warriors mirrored the Nuggets’ hustle, ball movement and underdog mentality.
After he gave the Warriors a 55-42 half-time lead by hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, Curry marched to halfcourt before lifting up his arms and screaming. Meanwhile, a frustrated Lakers team walked to the tunnel as sluggishly as they did on the court. Not only did Curry make shots as expected from deep or at the rim, teammates Kent Bazemore, Jordan Poole and Juan Toscano-Anderson flexed and talked trash after making multiple highlight reels doing the same thing.
Unlike the Clippers last season, the Lakers have shown the ability this season to course correct. So the Lakers huddled up at halftime and spoke candidly.
“We have to play more physical,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel recalled saying. “That’s the simple way to put it. That’s the public way to put it.”
James shared that teammate Markieff Morris offered a much harsher albeit undisclosed assessment. But as James observed, “we didn’t take it personal.”
Instead, the Lakers took it out on the Warriors. James became more aggressive and drove to the basket repeatedly. Despite Vogel’s contention that Drummond “played a great game,” it wasn’t great enough because Vogel played Davis primarily at center. After initially settling for outside shots, Davis eventually got going in the paint and off of lobs. It also helped that the Warriors threw up bad shots and committed silly turnovers.
“We just made an adjustment. Everyone knows their role,” Davis said. “If we make an adjustment mid-game and we go small and I’m at the 5, no one is complaining. No one is upset because at the end of the day it’s all about winning.”
The Lakers have tried to remind themselves about that philosophy for the past 1½ years. During that time, the Lakers have figured out how to navigate any adversity both important and trivial. Last season, the Lakers bonded through Kobe Bryant’s tragedy and during a resumed season in a campus bubble in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The Lakers still thrived on the court both because of James and Davis, as well as strong chemistry among their teammates, coaching staff and front office.
This season presented some new challenges. They started the 2020-21 season only 71 days after winning the NBA title. Instead of keeping the championship roster intact, the Lakers sought to diversify their roster with more youth and playmaking. While that has led to a top-ranked defense, the Lakers have also had 25 different starting lineup combinations. Some of that stemmed from prolonged absences to James, Davis and Schroder, the team’s best players.
“It’s been a lot for us. But at the end of the day, we have no excuses,” Davis said. “We make no excuses for ourselves. We don’t feel sorry for ourselves because no one else does. It makes it all worth it in the end. This is going to be a challenge, and we accept the challenge. The more we embrace it and accept we’ll be in this position, it’ll be easier for us.”
The Lakers have no other choice. But that does not mean they can navigate this playoff journey just like they did against the Warriors.
Vogel admitted the team could use more time for James to heal his right high ankle sprain. He conceded his players could use a few more weeks to solidify their chemistry and rotations. In theory, the Lakers could become healthier and more dangerous as the postseason progresses. Yet, the playoff road inevitably becomes bumpier.
After ensuring that a postseason future awaits them, however, the Lakers remained bullish about their chances. Perhaps their vision is as cloudy as James’ after Green poked him in the eye. But they saw the play-in tournament win as evidence they can tackle problems that face them no matter how difficult.
“Being tested like that strengthens you,” Vogel said. “Our group had a lot of new pieces and seeing our guys in that environment be together helps us going forward.”