The day before the Lakers returned to action after the all-star break, LeBron James told reporters, “My playoff intensity level has been activated.” Let’s check in now on that playoff intensity level.
Despite an alleged forthcoming surge in intensity, James and the Lakers have now dropped two straight games against inferior opposition, first letting the Anthony Davis–less Pelicans hang 128 on them over the weekend before failing to even bother the tanking-ass Grizzlies last night. They stand 29-31, on the bottom of a five-team scramble for the last two playoff spots. In order to keep LeBron from missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005, this broken team has to be more or less perfect over the last 22 games of the season.
Is there any reason to believe they will be? Magic Johnson’s failed Anthony Davis quest finally destroyed the Lakers’ chemistry, which was already on unstable footing to begin with thanks to James’s habit of sniping down at his team’s cast of misshapen young players and his backchannel efforts to get Luke Walton out of the paint. On the court, they look bored and uninterested in playing together, an unsurprising side effect of being publicly shopped by your team’s leader.
Is basketball, is that the most important thing while we’re doing this? Is this the most important thing in your life at this time? Are you giving it all to that game? And then if you feel like you put it all into it, then you have nothing to kind of look back on. You’re able to do other things. If you feel like you’re giving it all to the game, then you can go do other things. But if you feel like you’re not giving as much as you can, then you can’t focus on anything else.
Maybe focus and urgency aren’t the primary issues here, perhaps it’s simply that the Lakers are a bad team who don’t fit together well around James. He’s always needed shooters around him, and the likes of Reggie Bullock, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Kuzma—who has the rep of a good shooter but is only hitting 32 percent of his six threes per game—are all James has right now. The Lakers seem to need Lonzo Ball around to defend point guards, as they’ve slumped hard without him, but also Ball shoots 41 percent on free throws and even worse on field goals. Everyone is one-dimensional, yet nobody besides the deeply average Bullock is one-dimensional in the right way. Couple their inherent structural flaws with a collective agreement not to try, and you have this disaster.
The Pelicans and Grizzlies losses sting so much because they were two of the last games L.A. had on their schedule that they’d be favored in. Aside from two cupcakes against Chicago and Phoenix, the Lakers face a brutal final stretch. They still have to play Boston (out for revenge), Denver, Toronto, the Clippers, Utah, and Milwaukee twice. And those games will all come before a harrowing final six games against the Pelicans (who hate them and will do everything they can to win), Thunder, Warriors, Clippers, Jazz, and Blazers.
Both the Clippers and Kings have easier schedules over the final quarter of the season, and given how many wins it usually takes to get the eighth seed, L.A. needs to go at least 15-7 over their last 22. Their only consolation prize is that the Wolves somehow have the second-most difficult schedule in the league, but even if they spring past the Wolves, they’re still in 10th place, still needing to dislodge two of the Clippers, Kings, and Spurs.
(How dumb would it be if the Kings and Clippers, two of the NBA’s most historically inept franchises, make the playoffs over heavyweights like the Spurs and Lakers?)
The only way they get there is if LeBron James takes them there, and if ratcheting up the “playoff intensity” means beating the Rockets only to fall flat against the Pelicans and Grizzlies, why would you believe there’s more to see from the Lakers? I suppose it’s possible, but it will take a sustained effort level that these Lakers have never shown themselves capable of reaching.
I leave you with the following.