The groin injury LeBron James received as his most unwanted Christmas gift might not be particularly serious, but it’s serious enough to potentially torpedo the Los Angeles Lakers’ season.
Harsh though that prognosis seems, being without James for even a handful of games at this pivotal period of the campaign seems likely to have major postseason repercussions, to the point that missing the playoffs altogether could suddenly become a realistic outcome.
The reasons are twofold. One is because the young and largely inexperienced Lakers rely so heavily upon their veteran leader, and while they are capable of winning games without him, surrendering late leads through a lack of guile and savvy suddenly becomes far likelier.
The other is all to do with the packed nature of the Western Conference, where any brief lull in form can send a team tumbling drastically down the standings.
James’ health and availability is still day-to-day, though it seems he will be out for the next week or two. There was no muscle tear and the complaint shouldn’t slow him down too much when he does return. Over the course of a season, it will be a fairly small slice of absence. But who knows where the Lakers will be by the time he gets back?
For a team like Los Angeles, who went into Thursday night’s visit to the Sacramento Kings propping up a bunch of challengers in the fourth spot in the West, the potential for damage is particularly acute.
A defeat to the Kings thanks to a dramatic (and highly alliterative) Bogdan Bogdanovic buzzer-beater, slipped the James-free Lakers to fifth. And suddenly the sharks are circling.
“With the injuries we need our young guys to step up,” head coach Luke Walton said. “We left a lot out there on the table. We could have just handled our business. The point you learn is that you don’t let it get to that one shot.
“If LeBron James is playing in that game it probably finishes differently. When you get the best closer in the game on your team you rely on him to do that.”
More pertinent for the Lakers is that the West is absurdly loaded, with only six games separating the first-placed Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Timberwolves, all the way down in 13th.
Before James’ groin got tweaked, it looked like the Lakers might find themselves on the right side of the scramble, and were trending to be narrowly good enough to secure home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
It is difficult to see that now, especially if they come out of this stretch missing James having been leapfrogged by a number of ambitious battlers.
It would certainly be unfair to say the Lakers performed poorly without James in their first outing since his injury on Christmas Day. They should have beaten the Kings and they dominated for the most part, only to fall victim to Bogdanovic’s dagger.
But that’s the whole point. What would have been a certain win with James, was turned into an honorable and morale-sapping defeat. The margins are slim, especially in the West. Robbed of their greatest X-factor, the Lakers are in danger.
“We just didn’t do enough,” Lonzo Ball said.
The Lakers’ season has a long way to run, but it just hit by far its most serious roadblock. Heading into the time when the serious contenders need to start flexing their muscles, L.A. is concerned with the recovery of a strained one. In a conference where the margins are painfully slim, no team can afford to give up ground. The Lakers seem to have the stomach for a fight, but their biggest struggle is still to come.
Source: “Los Angeles” – Google News