This year’s Lakers limp into the playoffs with major questions and daunting competition.
By Soren Blomquist Eggerling, Staff Writer
With a thinning hairline and salt and pepper in his beard, LeBron James has started to look how the Los Angeles Lakers have felt all season.
The team has been beaten down by injuries, with James sitting for the longest stretch of his career (20 consecutive games) and fellow star Anthony Davis missing 30 games himself. This resulted in a mediocre regular season, forcing the Lakers to eke out a three-point win over the Golden State Warriors in the new play-in game to officially reach their current first round matchup: as a lowly 7 seed facing a surprising 2 seed, the upstart Phoenix Suns.
The Suns, who missed the playoffs last year despite an 8-0 record in the bubble, dominated in the regular season, finishing a game away from the best record in the NBA. They are led by longtime James pal Chris Paul and a pair of rising stars in Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.
The Suns held the edge in the regular season series, winning two out of three games played. Currently, that trend has been reversed, with the Lakers holding a 2-1 advantage in the playoff series. After dropping the first game, the Lakers have taken the next two, looking revitalized in the process.
Credit is in large part due to Davis, who after being manhandled by Ayton in Game 1, has bounced back with two 34-point games topped off with 10 and 11 rebounds. James has been serviceable, but his turnovers were high in Game 3, and he has yet to dominate like he has proven he can throughout his career and even earlier this season.
“It feels good for me personally to make plays for my teammates,” James said in a news conference after Game 3. “Obviously, it’s been a rough year on me as far as physically … but every day is a step forward.”
While the series with the Suns is far from over, Paul’s shoulder injury and Davis’s resurgence have put the Lakers squarely in the driver’s seat. The Western Conference is anyone’s game this year. The Lakers have a strong chance at returning to the Finals, but it is not a given.
James has to nudge up his scoring and cut down on his turnovers, but the key to a Lakers repeat is in the revamped supporting cast, which has been touted as superior to last year’s championship squad. Andre Drummond and Dennis Schroder, two new additions, have added a scoring punch that is going to be necessary the further into the playoffs the Lakers go. Although Montrezl Harrell, last year’s NBA Sixth Man of the Year, has been benched recently he should see the court going forward as the Lakers will need all hands on deck.
This year’s road to the O’Brien Trophy is much more treacherous than the bubble last year, with the top of the East (Brooklyn in particular) awaiting whoever the deeper West spits out. Utah and Denver are liable to beat Los Angeles, but do not rule out a comeback from the Clippers in their series with the Mavericks or even revenge by the Suns over the next few games. Still, with a seemingly healthy team (Davis did hyperextend his knee in the Game 3 win while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope suffered a left quad contusion) and one of the greatest players of all-time, the Lakers have just as good of a shot as anyone.
“Lakers are going to Repeat folks! BOOK IT,” tweeted one fan. That confidence may be extreme, but yet again, the Lakers are rounding into form.