It was no accident that LeBron James waited until he had won his third NBA title to reveal that he’d always wanted to chase Michael Jordan’s six championships. James might have historic aspirations, but he also is a savvy cultivator of his own legacy and wise enough to know you don’t even start talking about MJ until you’re at least halfway there.
Among this generation of NBA players, Jordan has GOAT status. His six rings are the bar all of them must clear to be in that conversation. Five rings gets you on the same mountain peak as all-time greats like Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.
James was 31 when he got to three rings with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016. It took him until age 35 to win his fourth ring last season with the Los Angeles Lakers, but he and his new co-star, Anthony Davis, looked like they could win a few more — if they stayed healthy.
But after Tuesday’s 115-85 blowout loss at the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of their first-round Western Conference playoff series, James and the Lakers are one defeat away from having this season — and its legacy-making opportunity — close for good.
Davis was unable to play due to a strained groin, which he suffered in Sunday’s Game 4 loss at Staples Center.
James was unable to carry his team, although with as badly as the Lakers’ supporting cast played, it doesn’t matter how wide his shoulders were.
And the Lakers were unable to muster much of a fight against the resurgent Suns, who now lead the series 3-2 and are again looking like the team that finished with the second-best record in the NBA.
“We just played our style,” Suns guard Chris Paul said. “We kept the pace going, shared the ball. We just played the way that we play.”
L.A. was so bad Tuesday night that Hall of Famer and former Laker James Worthy even said on the Lakers local postgame show, “There’s got to be a meeting of the minds after a game like this. I mean, this might be the worst game I’ve seen in Laker history.”
James finished with 24 points, seven assists and five rebounds in 32 minutes, well under the time he normally plays in the postseason. But there was little reason for him to play in the fourth quarter, with the Lakers down by as much as 36. And there was little reason for him to even watch, as he and Davis walked off the court with 5 minutes, 39 seconds remaining in the game to get an early start on treatment before Thursday’s Game 6 in Los Angeles.
“We got our ass kicked. It’s that simple,” James said. “We have to be better if we want to force a Game 7. They pretty much just kicked our ass. There’s nothing else to say.”
As for his approach to Game 6, a potential elimination game, James said he is preparing to play without Davis again.
“My mindset is that he’s not going to be able to play in Game 6, but that’s just my mindset,” James said. “If something changes, we go from there. It’s literally win or go home … so you shoot all the bullets you got and throw the gun too. I look forward to the environment.”
Now the conversation about legacy shifts to that of 36-year-old Suns star point guard Paul, who has come back from a shoulder injury to put his team in position to knock out the defending champions in Game 6 or a Game 7 on Saturday in Phoenix.
Just a few days ago, it was the Suns who were staring down the long odds of a comeback after a blowout loss on their opponent’s home court, with one of their stars hobbled by injury. That’s how quickly this series turned around over the course of 72 hours.
But it would be too simplistic to say the change is entirely due to the reversal in Davis’ and Paul’s injury statuses.
Yes, the Lakers dearly missed Davis’ offense and rim protection, but their abysmal performance Tuesday night was the result of season-long systemic issues on offense that they’ve never quite fixed. Point guard Dennis Schroder is theoretically L.A.’s third-best player, the “next man up” as James put it on Sunday, after Davis was lost to injury. But Schroder has never quite grabbed a hold of that responsibility this season, and he completely let go of the rope in a scoreless, 26-minute effort in Game 5.
“We have to be creative in finding ways to get Dennis going; he’s a hell of a player,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s been huge for us this year. He’s struggled a couple games this series. But we’ve gotta put this one behind us and be a little more creative in getting him going. Because when he’s going, we’re a hell of a team. He had a tough night.”
Indeed, Schroder is averaging 22 points on 52% shooting in the Lakers’ two wins but just 7.3 points on 28% shooting in their three losses.
Then there is L.A.’s lack of outside shooting. It was never a strong point for the Lakers (25th during the regular season), but it’s been downright awful in this series (31.8%, ranking 15th out of 16 playoff teams).
On Tuesday, L.A. was just 12-of-35 from behind the arc (34%), but even that’s a bit misleading, because James hit six of his 10 3-pointers, which meant the rest of the Lakers were just 6-of-25.
“We didn’t play well enough on either side of the ball,” Vogel said. “Early in the game, they built a big lead, and we didn’t respond. But they did what they were supposed to do — win Game 5. Whether they win by one or win by 30, they won Game 5.
“It’s our turn to go back to L.A., take care of our home court and make this a seven-game series.”
Phoenix, on the other hand, was scorching right from the start. Devin Booker had 18 points in the first quarter on 7-for-10 shooting and really never cooled off, finishing with 30 points on 13-of-23 shooting.
Paul finished with nine points, six assists and four rebounds in just 23 minutes, but that hardly captures his impact on the game, as Phoenix was a staggering +34 with him on the court.
Cameron Payne continued his breakthrough season with 16 points off the bench on 7-of-11 shooting as the Suns were opening up a double-digit lead.
About the only sour note for Phoenix in Game 5 was the sight of Paul down on the court, grabbing his injured right shoulder, after Wesley Matthews bumped him from behind while going up for a rebound. Paul seemed upset with the foul at the time, but he later walked over and shook hands with Matthews.
“It’s a little banged up, but I’ll be all right,” Paul said. “It scared me. I’ve been talking to (Toronto Raptors guard) Kyle Lowry a lot. He had a similar injury last year. I don’t know, it’s just a very uncomfortable feeling. Kind of helpless. When it happened, I was just looking up, I didn’t know what happened. But after I seen it, I came back out on the court and told Wes it was a clean play. It’s just unfortunate my neck and arm snapped again, like it did.”