Photo: Sean M. Haffey (Getty)

It can seem a little cheesy and cherry-picked to focus much criticism on LeBron’s play-to-play effort for these fading Lakers. For one thing, this roster is a complete mess, and the team’s on-court chemistry is currently in the toilet, and everyone is screwing up all the time. For another, LeBron is still by a wide, wide margin their best player, and in their current condition—no Lonzo Ball, no Brandon Ingram, Mike Muscala playing rotation minutes—if LeBron weren’t around to do a lot of very heavy lifting they’d be the Memphis Grizzlies.

On the other hand, LeBron’s Lakers teammates—and especially the young teammates who were around before he got there—have eaten plenty of shit already for their share of the team’s on-court dysfunction. And it was LeBron, after all, who announced the activation of “playoff intensity” over the All-Star break, the kind of statement that invites scrutiny of a player’s effort level. LeBron is the leader of this underachieving group; he was a driving force behind their doomed and humiliating pursuit of Anthony Davis; now it falls to him to pick up his teammates and get the team pointed back in the right direction. And he’ll be doing it with playoff intensity!

Here is a clip of second-year forward Kyle Kuzma literally shoving a sagging LeBron into his defensive assignment:

It’s worth noting that 34-year-old LeBron played a game-high 42 minutes Monday night, and scored 27 points on 19 shots, and made several heroic plays down the stretch. But it’s far more enjoyable to note that one of the youngsters LeBron and Magic Johnson and Rich Paul were all too willing to ship away in a deadline deal had to bodily throw LeBron at Danilo Gallinari on a crucial late-game defensive possession, like a parent shoving their enormous child out of the way of a moving car. 

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The Lakers, after tonight’s 113–105 home defeat to the Clippers, have now lost three in a row and seven of 10, and are 10th in the West. They sit five and a half games back of the Spurs for the final Western Conference playoff spot, with 18 games left on their schedule. They find themselves giving non-garbage-time minutes to Moritz Wagner and Alex Caruso, and by-God rotation minutes to Mike Muscala, in must-win scenarios. Ingram is out with an injury; Lonzo is out with an injury; Kuzma left tonight’s game with an injury. Rajon Rondo is their second-best available offensive player. They’re dead! The Lakers are very likely dead. It will be grimly enjoyable to track how demoralized this team can get between now and the sweet release of official postseason elimination.