LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers looked sluggish and shell-shocked on Sunday. In their first-round matchup against the Phoenix Suns, after squeaking past the Golden State Warriors in the Play-In Tournament, the defending champs looked anything but title-contending.
This is not the run of a defending champion that should be considered the hunted. The Lakers barely made the playoffs, and it shows. James has been battling through an ankle injury that he suffered in March, and it shows. Anthony Davis has been battling through injuries of his own (as seems to be an annual occurrence), and it shows. The Lakers and their weaknesses have been exposed, and Lake Show fans should be concerned.
In the first game of their series against the Suns, James couldn’t demonstrate his typical explosiveness. The powerful athlete who is so apt to get to the rim wasn’t driving and attacking, and doesn’t appear to have his legs under him after playing in only 45 of 72 games this season — the fewest games played in any season in his 18-year career.
With their two superstars laboring, and going against a potent Suns team capable of piling on the points on any given night (115.1 points per game, eighth highest), the Lakers are in trouble. James managed 18 points in game one, while Davis only managed 13 on 5/16 shooting with a plus/minus of -18.
The Western Conference is a buzzsaw of talented and deep teams. This conference won’t be won this year on the backs of one or two superstars. Denver kicked the bricks off the Portland Trailblazers last night, all without Jamaal Murray. The Utah Jazz are loaded. Dallas is giving the Clippers all they can handle. For the Lakers to survive, James and Davis need to be the superstars that they are, while others around them desperately need to find another gear.
This isn’t new to James, however. He has a history of using the first game of a series to feel out his opponent, much like an elite hitter will take the first strike to see what the pitcher has. Comfortable from being “behind” in the count, James will break down an opponent to find their weaknesses.
James has a 20 percent winning-percentage in Game 1 of his 10 NBA Finals appearances in his career, and while we aren’t to that depth of the playoffs, it speaks to his approach. Last year, in the first game of the Finals against the Miami Heat, the Lakers were down big early. They rallied, went on a tear, and won the game 116-98. After the game, James said:
“I don’t think at the beginning we were physical enough. You have to get a feel for how hard Miami plays. They smacked us in the mouth, and we got a sense of that. So we knew how hard we had to play if we wanted to make it a game. From that moment, when it was 23-10, we started to play to our capabilities.”
After a slow start in that game, James adjusted. The problem this year, however, might not be in whether or not James and the Lakers know how to adjust — it’s whether or not their bodies will physically be able to.