LOS ANGELES — Anthony Davis was the last player to emerge from the Los Angeles Lakers’ locker room before tip-off Thursday night, shuffling slowly and carefully to the court as if navigating a balance beam covered in eggshells.
The first time Davis put his groin to the test, it failed him. Launching off his left leg to contest a Devin Booker runner, Davis came down in pain and immediately motioned to be taken out of the game. He sat on the court in front of his team’s bench and quickly departed for the locker room, his night over after just five minutes. His Game 4 injury had tilted this first-round series in Phoenix’s direction, and its aggravation ended the Lakers’ title defense.
A trying, injury-plagued campaign, which launched in earnest just 71 days after the Lakers claimed the 2020 title in the Disney World bubble, sputtered to a conclusion in Davis’s absence. The floodgates opened immediately. Trailing 14-7 when Davis departed, the Lakers fell behind by 22 at the end of the first quarter. The deficit reached 29 points before halftime, and Phoenix claimed a 113-100 win for its first playoff series victory since 2010 as Davis watched from the bench with a towel wrapped around his head.
“Just wanted to be out there for the team, given the situation [was] win or go home,” Davis said. “I didn’t want to lay down and not do what I can. It never really felt good. I wanted to do whatever I could to help the team, but my body didn’t agree.”
The seventh-seeded Lakers seemed poised to take a 3-1 series lead before Davis’s injury, with LeBron James sprinting around the court with renewed enthusiasm in Game 4 and even finishing an alley-oop off the backboard. But the second-seeded Suns capitalized on Davis’s absence, shredding the Lakers’ defense with ball movement and hot shooting while packing the paint to limit James’s effectiveness and close down his passing lanes on the other end.
Phoenix left no doubt, winning the first eight quarters after Davis’s injury by a cumulative margin of 223-168. Chris Paul sealed a Game 4 win with precise pick-and-roll execution, and his all-star backcourt partner, Booker, finished off the Lakers with 47 points in the closeout victory. The Suns advanced to face the Denver Nuggets, who eliminated the Portland Trail Blazers in six games Thursday.
The Lakers’ three straight losses revealed the depth of their reliance upon Davis, who was an integral part of their 2020 title push but was often overshadowed by James. Offensively, Los Angeles was so desperate for spacing without Davis that Coach Frank Vogel benched starting center Andre Drummond in Game 6. Defensively, the Lakers bled points everywhere without last year’s runner-up for defensive player of the year honors. Drummond and Marc Gasol were too slow laterally to contain Phoenix’s guards, and the Lakers’ smaller lineups lacked the necessary discipline to protect the paint and the three-point line.
James, who appeared to lack his typical burst as he played through a high ankle sprain he suffered in March, was unable to put his team on his back as he had many times in past postseason runs, and he lost in the first round for the first time in 15 playoff appearances over his 18-year career.
“[The offseason is] going to work wonders for me,” James said. “During the season, I don’t talk about rest. I don’t like to put my mind frame into it; it makes me weak. . . . I’ll have three months to recalibrate. My ankle was obviously bothering me in the later stages of the season, and it never got fully back to where it was before the injury.”
Misery loves company, and the Lakers are hardly alone in falling short of expectations during this shortened and condensed 72-game season. The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, who both reached the Eastern Conference finals in the bubble, were also eliminated in the first round. Of the eight teams to reach the second round last year, only the Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers, who are down 3-2 to the Dallas Mavericks in their first-round series, remain alive this year.
“The whole thing was a challenge,” Vogel said. “To play all the way into October and start the season when we did, it was going to be an uphill battle. None of our guys were prepared for training camp. We tried to grind through it. ... Ultimately, the injuries that we faced were just too much.”
Despite the scheduling complications, this Lakers campaign should be regarded as a disappointment and a missed opportunity for James and Davis to add to their ring tallies. After the Lakers raced out to a 21-6 start, Davis suffered a calf injury in February that cost him two months and James missed more than a month with his March ankle injury, setbacks that prevented the Lakers from recapturing their chemistry down the stretch.
A late-season coronavirus health protocol absence for Dennis Schröder added another challenge for the wobbly champions, who got little from their most prominent offseason acquisition in the playoffs. Schröder went 0 for 9 from the field in the Game 5 loss and failed to step up as a scorer or playmaker when the Lakers needed him most.
“You have to go through the bulls--- to get to the good s---,” Schröder said. “We went through a lot of stuff this year. We’re going to be back. I’m going to work my ass off to come back here and give everything. We owe the fans more.”
The 36-year-old James and the 28-year-old Davis remain in the discussion as the NBA’s best duo, but the Lakers are heading into the offseason earlier than expected and facing far more rotation questions than anyone could have predicted.
James and Davis signed contract extensions before the season, but six key players — Schröder, Drummond, Montrezl Harrell, Alex Caruso, Talen Horton-Tucker and Wesley Matthews — are set to be free agents. James and Davis will earn a combined $76 million next season, and the Lakers have sent out multiple future draft picks in trades, making it logistically difficult for General Manager Rob Pelinka to chase a third star. Most likely, Los Angeles will find itself playing defense and needing to pick among its own free agents; Schröder, Caruso and Horton-Tucker are due meaningful raises.
Since they left the bubble, the Lakers did plenty of grumbling about their short offseason and other schedule matters, including the league’s decisions to add an All-Star Weekend in March and a play-in tournament in May, both of which chafed James. Midway through a frantic too-little, too-late fourth-quarter comeback in Game 6, James turned to the bench and asked for a breather. As he sat, Paul drained a midrange dagger to silence the building.
By the end, there were too many straws on the Lakers’ backs, and Davis’s groin injury proved to be the backbreaker.
“It’s been draining,” James said of the Lakers’ run since bubble play began in July. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally draining.”