The Los Angeles Lakers will receive no pity from the Phoenix Suns or any of the remaining playoff teams after losing star striker Anthony Davis to a groin injury in a 100-92 loss at the Staples Center on Sunday afternoon.
After all, the Suns played this first-round Western Conference playoff series with a very limited version of Chris Paul (shoulder).
And, of course, the Lakers still have LeBron James – a 36-year-old who is still recovering from an ankle injury that cost him more than a third of the season’s version of LeBron James.
But still, a LeBron James who has never lost in the first round of the playoffs.
“When I went up against the Miami Heat, and either [Dwyane] Wading or [Chris] Bosh was out, which meant more touches for Bron, “said Lakers coach Frank Vogel.” And that wasn’t always good for my Pacers teams.
That version of James was in his late twenties, however. And it didn’t come from a serious ankle injury. The mid-30s version of James has so far held back or countered the effects of age in order to remain one of the most dominant players in the NBA.
But the Lakers’ title defense now depends on whether that version of James can carry it through a Suns team that tied the Series 2-2 when they return to Phoenix for Game 5 on Tuesday.
It will be said by everyone else that James’ supporting cast also needs reinforcement. That Dennis Schroder has to do better in game 4 than his dud when he scored eight points in 3-on-13 shooting. That Kyle Kuzma needs to become the top scorer again after focusing on his all-round play throughout the season.
But that’s just that everyone is polite.
“We’ll see,” said James when first asked how his role might change on the show if Davis misses the time with his latest injury. A source told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Davis’ status is changing by the day.
A few minutes later, however, James recognized the obvious.
“Those shoulders were built for a reason,” he said. “Well, if I have to go even further, so be it. Win, lose or draw, I’m ready for the challenge.”
Anthony Davis lands awkwardly after a missed layup and limps a little late in the first half.
James led the Lakers on Sunday in points (25), rebounds (12) and assists (six), making him the oldest player in NBA postseason history to do so.
The Suns watched their own version of this movie with Paul, their own decrepit 36-year-old, for the past week. He’s been a shell of himself since he first appeared in the first half of the series on Jan.
During a 20-minute pre-competition meeting with Williams and General Manager James Jones on Sunday, Paul finally persuaded the team to give him a chance to start.
“I have to trust his will and his experience and the things he’s done throughout his career. He’s trained to be in those moments,” said Williams. “My last thought was, ‘I don’t want to be the one to take that away from him.’ That was the last thing I was thinking about, for example, who am I to take this away from him? He’s been working his tail off for years to be in this moment and I don’t want to be the goofy trainer to take that Path.'”
Paul put his arrangement with Williams on hold by speaking to his brother CJ and teammates Devin Booker and Jae Crowder.
“I said to the boys, ‘I don’t know how long it will take,'” Paul recalled. “‘If you all feel like I look like garbage out here, just tell me and I’ll go out.’
“But at least I had to see what I can do.”
Paul was able to achieve a lot more in Game 4 – 18 points, nine assists, three steals – than in the three previous games when Williams had to remove him in the second half.
Chris Paul confidently slaps the middle-class jumper over Andre Drummond and mocks for being back when the Lakers call for a break.
But perhaps most importantly, Paul didn’t lose the ball in nearly 32 minutes against the Lakers’ top-notch defense on Sunday. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, it was the sixth career playoff game that Paul had more than nine assists and no sales, overtaking Magic Johnson for most such games in NBA history.
This is emblematic of the experienced influence Paul had on this young Suns team, which this season set the second-best record in the league. And it was crucial on Sunday, in a tough street game against the defending champions, with the prospect of being 3-1 deficit if the Suns lost.
The Suns were balanced on Sunday and they fought hard. According to ESPN Stats & Info data, Phoenix made 58 of the Lakers’ 81 field goal attempts (72%), a far higher percentage than the Suns denied Thursday (57%) in their Game 3 loss.
The Lakers, on the other hand, contested just 40 of the Suns ’85 field goal attempts (47%), Los Angeles’ lowest postseason rating since ESPN began tracking all post-season games in 2014.
Now it’s a best-of-three series in which a pair of 36-year-old future Hall of Famers – who just happen to be good friends – battle each other for a chance to keep their season and championship hopes alive.
“The best teacher in life is experience,” said James. “Personally, I’m looking forward to the challenge. Whichever hand is dealt, I’m ready to play.”