EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Hobbled LeBron James realized he might have to shoot Lakers past Suns

Jun 1, 2021, 11:21 PM | Updated: Jun 2, 2021, 12:45 am
LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts as he walks off the court during the second half ...
LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts as he walks off the court during the second half in Game Five of the Western Conference first-round playoff series at Phoenix Suns Arena on June 01, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The King deferred. Then he tried to rule like his old self.

And when none of those things worked, LeBron James tried to avoid his first career 3-2 hole in the first round of the playoffs with the skill — jump-shooting — that took so many years for him to develop.

With his teammates shooting 31% and down 30 at halftime of an eventual 115-85 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of their first-round series, James fired off six threes over just less than nine minutes.

He made five in the third quarter, a playoff career high for any quarter. In 1,063 career quarters of playoff basketball, only 12 times has he even hit more than two threes in the third quarter.

He did it because his team, without fellow injured star Anthony Davis (groin), failed him.

Los Angeles couldn’t make shots, nor could it play defense.

James also did it not because he was afraid of the moment or unable to have an impact, but because he refuses to play anything but smart basketball.

“I play the game the right way, no matter the circumstances,” James said. “I don’t predetermine anything I’m going to do. I never play that way.”

James put up 24 points in 32 minutes of play, 15 via that barrage of third-quarter threes. All the Lakers could do around that was reduce a 30-point Suns halftime lead by a point heading to the fourth quarter.

And with that, James took to the locker room early with about six minutes left in the game.

It was a confirmation of how serious his ankle injury is, but it also played into his haters’ narrative about what amount of fight he’s got left.

“In terms of Bron going to the back, Bron had to start his treatment,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of the star’s bum ankle. “Get him the treatment as soon as possible to help him get ready for Game 6.”

It’s clear by now James isn’t himself.

He is no longer the runaway train in transition, nor the downhill rim-attacker in the halfcourt.

You could see it in how deferential James began his evening at Phoenix Suns Arena. He went 3-of-7 in the first quarter with two turnovers and five assists. The forward drove but often kicked it back out, struggling to get his hips past Suns defenders and unwilling to attack the rim (he didn’t shoot a single free throw all night).

In a rare instance where James did try to attack early in the second quarter, he was swallowed up by Torrey Craig, a sign of James’ aching ankle.

James didn’t score a single second-quarter point, nor did he have an assist. He did have a turnover in the 8:42 played in the period. And with three minutes to go in the second, James went to the bench for the first time all game.

“I thought he found the perfect balance,” Vogel said of James’ shot-pass mix. “We got to knock down shots, you know what I mean? It’s a make-or-miss league.”

To that point, the Lakers shot 35% overall and the same figure from three for the game.

Los Angeles finished with 14 assists as a team, half of them via James.

The Lakers also got to the charity stripe a relatively low 21 times for the second game in a row — it’s obviously hurt them that an aggressive Davis hasn’t been healthy.

“We were getting some really good looks. We’re just not making many shots,” James said. “We’re going to trust the pass like we’ve always done.”

James played like his usual self, but Vogel’s skittish rotations without Davis reflected the desperation for Los Angeles.

The coach started Markieff Morris in place of Davis, but at least three times early in the game, the 2011 Suns first-round pick found himself cross-matched on Phoenix’s Devin Booker. The Suns’ young star proceeded to pour in 18 first-quarter points to finish with 30 in just three quarters of play.

Vogel pulled the plug on that starting lineup in the second half, giving Marc Gasol the start at center and Alex Caruso a spot in the lineup to go small, without Morris.

While that move hid the slow-afoot Gasol from the Suns’ second unit led by a probing Cameron Payne (16 points, four assists), it fared no better against Phoenix as a whole. Again, the Lakers shaved just a point off their halftime deficit.

“Just didn’t show any heart,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said. “Obviously, they were aggressors, did whatever they want offensively, punched us defensively. We got disrespected out there.

“We got to be men, we got to strap the (expletive) up. We got to play with heart.”

James indeed had his sulking moments.

When Craig flew in for a dunk in secondary transition to put Phoenix up 60-32 with 3:18 left in the second quarter, James hadn’t passed half court.

But as much as he found himself deferring early, he hunted his shots in a way he’s never done before in his career. That’s because James knows Davis is unlikely to return for Game 6 after he went through two pregame set shooting drills where he hardly displayed agility or explosion.

Even if they were good looks — and the best looks considering his inability to get to the rim — it was out of character for James. He knows the stakes and what’s on him with Davis unexpected to be back.

“My mindset, for me, is if A.D. won’t be in the game in Game 6, and if something changes, we’ll go from there,” James said. “We’ll prepare as if he’s not.”

If Game 5 was any indication of what James can or can’t do, it’s that his success is going to be determined by his teammates’ abilities to hit shots. He can’t do it alone.

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