Frank Vogel was asked before his Lakers took on the Phoenix Suns on Sunday afternoon if it was necessary to make adjustments even after winning two games in a row. Two hours or so later, when Anthony Davis crumpled to the floor holding his groin, the coach was reminded of a basic fact of playoff basketball, as were we all: More often than not, the most notable adjustments involve the health of the athletes.
The Suns weathered a Game 1 shoulder injury to their leader, Chris Paul. Now the Lakers have to prepare again for the possibility of Life Without A.D., contingent on further evaluation of his groin strain on Monday. And so, after the Suns evened the best-of-seven first-round playoff series at 2-2 with their 100-92 victory at Staples Center, LeBron James was asked, “How wide are your shoulders, still?”
Wide enough. They’ll have to be.
“For me, it’s putting our team in position to be successful,” he said. “It starts with my approach, starts with my accountability, trickles down to everybody else. So, you know, these shoulders was built for a reason. And if it takes me to put some more on top of it, then so be it. Win, lose or draw, I’m ready for the challenge.”
Consider that at the time Davis injured his calf on Feb. 14, James had been averaging 18.7 shots per game. In the next four games he shot 20, 23, 21 and 29 times, and made 48 of the 93 (51.6 percent) attempts. The downside there: The Lakers lost three of those four games, but overall they were 7-6 after losing Davis and before James hurt his ankle on March 20. There’s no gradual run-up now, so quickly remembering the lessons of that earlier stretch will be critical.
Maybe it took 12 minutes for that muscle memory to kick in on Sunday. With Davis done for the day, the Lakers were outscored 27-15 in the third quarter, making 3 of 16 shots (and missing all seven 3-point attempts) and giving up 14 points in the paint and six off of six turnovers. They rallied to cut an 18-point margin to seven with 2:40 left in the game, before a 3-point dagger from the corner by Jae Crowder dulled their momentum.
Thus, the Game 5 playoff drama: Given a day to prepare, while hoping Davis can play but having to assume he can’t, can they tweak the strategy and hone their belief?
“There’s quite a confidence that we have now, to win without A.D.,” veteran center Marc Gasol said. “That’s not even a question for anybody in the locker room. Obviously, you lose him in the momentum of the game, that can kind of get your mind off track a little bit for some people. It shouldn’t, though. I don’t know if that was the case, to be honest.”
You can be sure James will take on that burden to do more, unless somehow Davis miraculously returns at something close to full strength Tuesday night in Phoenix. Vogel recalled facing James’ Miami Heat teams in the Eastern Conference when Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh was out.
“There were more touches for LeBron,” he said. “That wasn’t always necessarily a good thing for my Pacers teams, you know. So, it’s just going to be more opportunity for Bron. And obviously, we need other guys to step up. Not one other guy, but everybody. It’s going to be a group effort. We need contributions from everyone.”
Best-case scenario: The Lakers regain their 3-point eye the way they did during their fourth-quarter rally Sunday (4 for 8, after going 9 for 32 the first three quarters, including that woeful 0 for 7 in the third). Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, inactive Sunday with a left knee contusion, returns and bolsters that long-distance shooting, while Dennis Schröder, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma and the rest raise their games in response to complement James.
If the Lakers hold down the fort and give Davis a chance to get back for a Game 6 or a Game 7, maybe he can give them the kind of effort Paul gave the Suns on Sunday after being a game-time decision. Paul finished with 18 points, nine assists, three steals and no turnovers in 31:41.Worst-case scenario? The very issue that knocked the Lakers down to the No. 7 seed in the playoffs would end their championship defense.
We also learned Sunday that even the strongest of wills can’t compensate for physical breakdowns. Davis certainly tried, insisting he would play even after hyperextending his knee in Game 3 on Thursday night. He was visibly limited in his 19:24 on the court.
“I thought he was laboring a little bit,” Vogel said. “You know, he was saying his knee was sore, but there was no way he was not going to play. And I thought he gave a heck of a run at it, trying to compete through pain, and then obviously he came out with the groin injury.”
So let this be another reminder: Luck, as in staying healthy, is just as important as talent in the postseason and maybe more so. The Lakers had such good fortune in order to get to 16 wins before anyone else in the bubble last year.
If they’re going to do it again this year, it looks like they’re going to have to do it the hard way.
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