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Rome Didn’t Fall In A Day

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 03: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts after a Phoenix Suns foul in the second quarter during game six of the Western Conference first round series at Staples Center on June 03, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
Harry How/Getty Images

The end of the LeBron James era has been prophesied for years, which is the main reason it has been so remarkable—the sheer number of years that everyone has been wrong.

But if this is finally the year that he is no longer the center of the game’s universe, if the whimper of Thursday’s 113-100 loss to Phoenix in which James’ Los Angeles Lakers trailed by double digits for 43:09 of the allotted 48:00, then even his detractors didn’t get the satisfaction of him collapsing in a heap of age and body parts. That indignity was saved for the man who kept him young for two extra years, Anthony Davis, who lasted barely five minutes before leaving the game clutching his groin in frustrated rage.

Yes, the end came with a dull thud, the quicker and more precocious Suns pantomime-mocking the Lakers by destroying the game almost as it began. While it was clear that Davis was immobile and that the Lakers took their cue to abandon all hope based on that fact, the most telling statistic not attached to Devin Booker was the paltry 73 shots Phoenix took to win the game, as if to say to the team with the gaudiest defensive reputation, “We’ll score when we choose to, but we’re not going to go out of our way to do it.” Only once in NBA postseason history has a team won a game by scoring more and shooting less (Phoenix against Memphis in 2005, 115 points on 63 shots), and certainly not against the top-rated defensive team. It was as if the Suns agreed to play the game the way the Lakers wanted it played and kicked their collective seaters anyway.

It is for that reason and maybe no others that those who have longed for the end of James’s reign of tyranny think this might finally be the end. He was the one left standing for all to see as the Lakers were stripped of their entire M.O. in a battlefield court martial, the one left to be visually tied to a game in which his team never looked as though victory were even possible, even when the Lakers cut a 29-point deficit to 10 in the early fourth quarter. Even TNT’s Kevin Harlan, whose emotive skills are such that he can make any deficit seem surmountable, didn’t even try last night. The halftime box scored had been nailed to the door of the church, Luther’s 96th thesis with Booker’s 33 first-half points written in blood.

If the Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers’ pretend rivals, are eliminated by Dallas tonight, it will mark only the third time since the NBA expanded west in 1960 that the four Western Conference semi-finalists all come from the Mountain or Central time zones. In fact, though six of the eight seeds remaining would represent the chalk, save the Clips and the Knicks, it will be a postseason of underwhelming market size (if you consider Brooklyn as a stand-alone rather than New York’s first team, which it is clearly not, at least not yet).

But it is mostly the most significant proof yet that there is life above and beyond LeBron James—that is, until next year. Truth is, his era will not be considered truly closed until at least two years after he retires (or until his son Bronny is ready to do the Gordie/Marty/Mark Howe thing), and in any event, he isn’t going out like this.

Of course, nobody thought he’d go out like this last night either, as the representative of a team that was eliminated five minutes into a game against a team that hadn’t even made the playoffs for 11 years. Thus, the lesson here might be that the end doesn’t usually come in a day but over lots of them. After all, today may mark only the first day of James’s new life as an ex-champion, which while still tempting for many of you is awfully early to throw dirt on a grave that doesn’t yet exist.