SAN FRANCISCO -- LeBron James walked to the bench, dejected, shaking his head. Klay Thompson had just hit a corner 3-pointer to put the Golden State Warriors up by 10 early in the second quarter, and James looked like a man searching for answers -- just as he, and everyone involved with the franchise, have been doing all season. During the ensuing timeout, he threw his hands in the air, engaging in a couple of heated conversations with teammates before heading back out onto the court.
Given the Los Angeles Lakers' disappointing play this season, the recent discouraging comments from up and down the organization about the team's future, both in reports and on the record, and the lack of activity at the trade deadline, you almost expected them to roll over. Here we go again, etc., etc., etc.
Instead the Lakers battled back, putting forth one of their most spirited efforts of the season.
"I felt like that was as connected as we've been in quite a while," said James, who finished with 26 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists. "It's good to have a good feeling out there."
The much-maligned Russell Westbrook shot 7 for 13 from the field and committed just a single turnover. Austin Reaves and Talen Horton-Tucker both played as well as they have all season, combining for 30 points off the bench. The Lakers, who came into the game 19th in the league in 3-point accuracy, shot 41 percent from long distance. The large contingent of purple and gold-clad transplants in the Chase Center crowd cheered for the Lakers at every opportunity.
On paper, this sounds like a Lakers win. And the way they talked about it afterward, you'd think it was.
Instead it was a 117-115 loss to the Warriors on Saturday night, and part of that was due to some key miscues from James down the stretch. With just over 30 seconds left in the game, he got position in the lane for what the play-by-play describes as a "six-foot turnaround hook," but was essentially a layup for a player of LeBron's skillset -- one we've seen him make countless times over the course of his storied career. It would have brought the Lakers within a single point, but instead it caromed out, complicating the closing seconds for Los Angeles.
After a missed 3-pointer by Stephen Curry, James received the benefit of a suspect foul call on the ensuing possession that rewarded him with three free throws, needing to sink them all to tie the game with just over two seconds remaining. In a deflating moment for the Lakers and their fans, James missed his first attempt from the charity stripe, forcing him into a miss-on-purpose scenario that failed to materialize, as it usually does.
"It's just disappointing we don't get this 'W,' "Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said after the game. "Because I thought there was a lot of positive signs."
It was a shame that the game ended the way it did for James, who dominated most of the night while NBA history during the regular season and playoffs combined. Vogel addressed the milestone before and after the game, twice calling James "the greatest to ever play," and he certainly showed why for the first three quarters. The Lakers trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half, but James brought his team storming back, demonstrating all the talents that have put him in the discussion with Kareem and Michael Jordan for the best basketball player of all time: Power. Speed. Precision. Finishing. Shooting. Vision.for the most points in
But then the fourth quarter hit, and James could no longer play hero.
He went 1-for-10 in the final frame, missing shots he's made in his sleep for the better part of the past 20 years. Perhaps more importantly, James had zero assists in the fourth quarter and committed three turnovers after brilliantly facilitating the Lakers' offense during his previous minutes. After the game, Vogel blamed the officials as much as he could without risking a fine, saying that James was fouled on "a couple" of his fourth-quarter misses. James took ownership of his rare crunch-time dud.
"I didn't make enough plays down the stretch to help our ball club win," James said. "I liked some of the looks I had. I definitely got hit on a few of my shots, but they did a good job, and I didn't do such a good job of making enough plays to help us win. But, you know, it happens."
He's 100 percent right. It does happen. The problem with this Lakers team, as currently constructed, is that they can't win when it happens to LeBron. And therein lies the Debbie Downer dark cloud to all of the Lakers' optimism after a hard-fought, energetic loss.
Westbrook played one of his best games of the season. Davis, while not great, was solid on both ends. The role players stepped up. And yet, in the end, the Lakers needed yet another herculean effort from a 37-year-old who's played in more postseason games than anyone in NBA history.
Vogel blamed the refs. James said the Warriors did a good job defending him. How about this? The man was tired.
He was visibly gassed toward the end of his 38 minutes on the court, having carried the Lakers for most of the season through Davis' injury and Westbrook's disappointment. LeBron's not suddenly going to come out of the All-Star break with a reset odometer. Those miles, which were supposed to be eased by the additions of two high-profile teammates, have only gotten more jagged and taxing.
LeBron is what makes the Lakers, no matter how disappointing they are in the regular season, a potentially frightening playoff opponent. But the extreme reliance on him might also end up being their fatal flaw. Injury concerns aside, James' fatigue of carrying the Lakers through this season makes it hard to imagine him being able to come to the rescue time and time again during a seven-game playoff series, or even in a play-in game.
That being said, the Lakers did look better on Saturday night. James, Davis and Westbrook all mentioned that the passing of the trade deadline has released some pressure from the group, and it makes sense that one of Westbrook's best performances came in the first game after the deadline. Perhaps as he gets more comfortable and Davis gets healthier, the burden on James will finally be lessened.
"We play like this down the stretch and keep getting better and better, we want to be playing our best basketball as we get into the playoffs," Vogel said after the game. "Disappointed to lose the game, but overall I'm proud of how we played."