On Thursday night, after the shortest offseason in NBA history resulted in a painful and futile attempt at a title defense, James probably just wants his damn rest now.
The bubble champs are done, in the first round, losers to the healthier and bouncier Phoenix Suns. Miami, a bubble finalist in October, is also gone, having been swept out of the playoffs. Boston, which made the Eastern Conference bubble finals, already has lost, watched its president step away and moved its coach to the front office. Denver is the only one of the final four teams from the bubble that advanced out of the opening round. But the Nuggets haven’t been unscathed: They won despite injuries to their entire starting backcourt.
The bubble hangover is real. Looking at the top five seeds in each conference from last season, Milwaukee and Denver are the only ones to come back this season and move on to the second round (the Los Angeles Clippers have a chance to become the third). The 2020-21 season has been a lumbering journey full of transition and attrition.
“I always think about the moment we entered the bubble to today,” James told reporters, thinking back almost 11 months to the NBA’s restart. “It’s been draining. Mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually draining.”
It’s wild to think of James as being so spent. So human. He is the superstar constantly summoning energy for a chase-down block late in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals or to outlast the most daunting challenges and make deep playoff run after deep playoff run. This kind of setback is new to him. It’s the first time in 15 postseason appearances that his team lost in the opening round. His teams hadn’t lost a playoff series before the Finals since 2010.
Even though the Lakers limped into this tournament as a No. 7 seed, even though James and fellow all-star Anthony Davis were on the mend and out of rhythm, they were given a heavy dose of that champion’s respect. The Suns were a strong No. 2 seed, one of only two teams to reach 50 victories during the 72-game regular season. They finished nine games ahead of the Lakers in the standings. Chris Paul garnered some MVP buzz, Devin Booker showed more dimensions of his high-scoring game, and all of the complementary pieces, young and veteran, looked comfortable in Coach Monty Williams’s system.
Still, Los Angeles wasn’t considered an underdog. If James and Davis hadn’t missed a combined 63 games to injury, the Lakers would have been a higher seed. Right? Even with an insufficient, mismatched roster supporting their stars? The presence of James and Davis, plus the magic of having just won it all in the bubble, was supposed to have a mystical effect. But this team, full of new role players, hadn’t meshed. They couldn’t stay on the court together long enough. Injuries would not relent, especially for Davis, who hyperextended his left knee and then injured his groin during the Phoenix series. After the Suns destroyed the Lakers by 30 points in Game 5, they closed the series with a 113-100 victory Thursday at Staples Center.
Davis lasted just five minutes. Booker owned the court and scored 47 points. And for just the seventh time in league history, a reigning champion got bounced in Round 1.
“We had the pieces,” Davis said afterward. “We just couldn’t stay healthy. A lot of that is on me, a main guy who couldn’t stay on the floor.”
It’s not as simple as the short offseason and injuries. Phoenix, which went undefeated in the bubble and just missed play-in eligibility last season, is a nice and emerging squad with ample room to grow. You must give the Suns credit. They exposed the Lakers’ shooting deficiencies, and they used their quickness and versatility to exploit a Lakers roster that lacks sufficient athleticism on the wing and features too many centers who have become defensive liabilities.
Nevertheless, the pattern of underachieving for bubble teams that made deep playoff runs highlights the rush to a new season as a significant factor. This is exactly the scenario many feared when the NBA decided to make a quick, 71-day turnaround from the end of the pandemic-delayed 2020 Finals. It has been a survival test, not a mature and well-paced season. There’s still potential for lots of good basketball over the next six weeks, but the fresh faces and new contenders must captivate the audience without the counterbalance of familiar headliners.
When thinking about the NBA’s future, it bodes well that Booker, Donovan Mitchell, MVP favorite Nikola Jokic, Trae Young and Luka Doncic are among a younger crop that will be featured. And the second round will offer perhaps the best matchup of the entire playoffs: Milwaukee vs. Brooklyn, with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant and star power all over the court. The winner of that series could rise to be an overwhelming championship favorite. That’s definitely the case if Philadelphia center Joel Embiid can’t play — or play well — on his injured knee.
But it’s strange and perhaps concerning that the postseason has barely begun and some of the most influential players and teams in this buzzy, star-driven league have been eliminated. For basketball purists, the parity will be a cool twist. But relevance to a general audience will be analyzed more than usual the rest of the way. And the results may not be as uplifting as the NBA hoped when it took the long view this season and wished for a postseason that aligned with the nation reopening.
The timing wound up being perfect — and the worst it has ever been. The NBA and the country woke up at the same time, only to see LeBron, AD, Stephen Curry and other superstars put to bed early. And for as disappointed as they are, they know they need a longer offseason.
James, who is still recovering from an ankle injury that cost him more than one third of the season, was asked about competing for Team USA in the Tokyo Games.
“I think I’m going to play for the Toon Squad rather than the Olympics,” he said.
His movie “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is scheduled to be released July 16, in the middle of the Finals. James had played in the Finals during his previous nine playoff appearances. Four times his team had won it all.
This year, he will be peddling an animated film during championship time. It would be depressing if it weren’t so relaxing.