The Lakers are so bad now. They’ve won just twice since the All-Star break. In games over that stretch in which LeBron James has not scored 50 points the Lakers are now 0–8, with an average margin of defeat of 14 points. Monday night, fresh off a 29-point loss to the Phoenix Suns, LeBron made the decision to play through a sore knee on the second leg of a back-to-back, in order to help reverse his team’s recent fortunes. This did not work out at all: The Lakers did not make their second basket until more than six minutes into the first quarter, by which time they were down 19 points.
LeBron has for the most part been an easy guy to root for in his career, and on the whole I am slightly bummed that the winding-down portion of his career is going so poorly. But there is simply no denying the dark-hearted humor in an achy and exhausted 37-year-old father of three valiantly strapping it up in order to rescue his floundering team in the final weeks of a brutal season, and just immediately getting karate kicked into a latrine, so that he has to spend three-and-a-half quarters wading around in the mess. Understandably, LeBron himself did not find this quite so funny.
It’s not even all that clear what should’ve gone differently on this play, which ended with LeBron angrily spiking the ball at his feet and very colorfully scolding his teammates for not helping him out on the defensive glass. Pascal Siakam drives into the paint and kicks to Chris Boucher in the corner. Wenyen Gabriel, who I had never heard of before he suddenly was playing rotation minutes for a Los Angeles Lakers team that according to everyone involved was built to contend for a championship, closed out on the shooter. Wayne Ellington (ha!) and Talen Horton-Tucker (ha ha!) half-heartedly boxed out Siakam and rookie Scottie Barnes, but the extremely springy Precious Achiuwa simply out-leapt LeBron twice to keep the ball alive, and in the chaos Boucher snuck in and grabbed it off the floor, pretty much directly off of James’s shoe-tops. There was no Laker on the scene who had any realistic shot whatsoever of out-wrestling or out-leaping literally any of the Raptors who were involved, and the Laker who was best positioned to keep Boucher from snagging the ball off the floor was LeBron himself.
Still, I think as a tired and semi-washed old man I am sympathetic to LeBron’s outburst. If I am in a room with several healthy young people and there is a thing bouncing around at knee level, I will be supremely annoyed if it falls to me and my achy back to track the thing down and bring it under control. The old and infirm are valuable for their experience and wisdom; the young and vital, if they are valuable at all, are valuable because their joints do not groan and pop like the HMS Erebus being squeezed to death by arctic pack ice. I was not on the court for this sequence, but if I train my eyes on 24-year-old Malik Monk (ha ha ha!) I can feel my own anger rising. Get the ball!
LeBron’s second outburst of the night was less defensible. Barnes pushed the ball ahead in transition, missed a layup, missed a wild putback, and then tangled with James while pursuing the loose ball. The Lakers were down 19 points, nothing was going right, and LeBron was simply in an extremely shitty mood.
Wrestling for possession with a twitchy and muscular 20-year-old is good. Beating that precocious youngster to the ball is good. Pivoting and firing the ball at maximum velocity into the youth’s midsection when you have multiple open teammates is pure crusty cantankerousness.
LeBron finished with 30 points in 40 minutes, and the Lakers lost by 11 points to drop to 29-39 on the season. In another era, a team that was 5.5 games back of the eighth seed with 14 to play would be effectively done for the season; today, the thing that matters is that the Lakers are 2.5 games clear of the 11th seed Portland Trail Blazers, who haven’t utilized one serious lineup in more than a month. Los Angeles almost cannot avoid the play-in tournament, which means James and his teammates will have to continue lacing them up and trudging out there to chase wins, all the way to the bitter end. Ha ha ha!