April 20, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Lakers mindful of minutes for LeBron James and Anthony Davis

When last season concluded, LeBron James was on the ground outside a makeshift NBA locker room in a modest arena, ski goggles protecting his eyes from the sting of champagne. In one hand, a victory cigar billowed smoke. In the other, a cellphone connected him with his mother, Gloria.

“I love you. I love you,” he told her. “You are the reason why I’m even able to do this.”

Seventy-two days later, James once again had a phone in his hand and his mother’s face on the screen, this time with the Lakers about to receive their 2019-20 championship rings.

What should’ve been a cherished moment for James, celebrating his first title with the Lakers, his fourth overall with three organizations, felt too different.

“Bittersweet,” he called it.

Maybe if more time had passed, if the country had better handled the pandemic, that phone call could’ve been a face-to-face smile, a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Instead, it was the start of another isolated road, James and the Lakers beginning their title defense with a reminder that not enough time has passed for much to have changed.

It was just the Lakers, alone on a basketball court, friends and family reduced to digitized versions.

“It even felt weird having a basketball game today,” James said after the Lakers lost 116-109 to the Clippers.

James sat out the game’s final 7 minutes and 51 seconds after rolling an ankle even though the game was still a contest. He played barely more than 28 minutes, the fewest he’s ever logged in a season opener. While he scored 22 points, his five rebounds and five assists speak to the muted impact he had on the game after leading the NBA last season with 10.2 assists per game.

He said the ankle injury won’t keep him from the Lakers’ Christmas game against Dallas and Luke Doncic.

Normally after games reporters wait around his locker while he puts on his carefully selected outfit, the matching sneakers and hat.

Tuesday, he sat down to do his postgame videoconference, beginning with a big yawn and wearing a wave cap, a team-issued shirt and a black leather motorcycle jacket — a more Mad Libs outfit than usual.

“Just a weird day,” he said. “Celebrating a historic moment with our franchise, a historic run with what we did last year and then having to do without our family and friends and our fans — it’s just a, just a weird day, all in all. And then having go straight through to competition of basketball, it was just a weird day, to say the least.”

It’s the start of what could be a weird few weeks for the Lakers.

James and Anthony Davis were dominant as the team pushed through the malaise of the NBA’s bubble to win their first championship together. The superstar duo looked at each other postgame Tuesday and wondered how it was even possible that they were back on the court competing already.

“It’s only been a couple months,” Davis said wistfully.

The Lakers stars who carried the heaviest loads during their title run aren’t ready to go head to head against a duo like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers stars who combined for 59 points in 70 minutes of court time compared with 40 points in 59 minutes for James and Davis.

It’s a formula that coach Frank Vogel seems willing to follow — accept struggles early in the season, with the Lakers and their coach concentrating on the big picture.

“We’re going to be conservative with their minutes early on in the season, and we have the depth to do it,” he said. “We didn’t play well enough to win the game tonight, but we have the depth to manage their minutes intelligently early on in the season while we’re trying to get our legs under us. And we’ll continue to do so.”

It’s not just their legs. It’s their heads.

The team spent 95 days in the bubble, mostly alone, trying to win the championship they celebrated with no one on Tuesday other than themselves. Then the offseason zoomed, pun intended, and the Lakers had to get back to work way faster than anyone wanted.

“It’s not the fact that it’s starting over, it’s the fact that it’s here already,” James said. “I’ve always had a routine of how I prepare going into a season after a Finals run or after a playoff run, knowing the amount of time that I kind of have for my body, for my mind, for the team that we’re going to be. … It was just a lot. I can’t even sit here and lie to you. It was just too much to kind of grasp. But we’re in it now. I’m happy today is over with and we can focus on the season. But it’s just a lot. It’s a lot to process.”

It was something that both Davis and James expressed, an excitement that opening night came and went despite the emotions that came with receiving their championship rings.

Because there were other emotions, too, with the season being back this close to wrapping in the bubble — reluctance, discomfort and, ultimately, begrudging acceptance.

“We’re here,” Davis said. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”

The Lakers have been pushed back into the pool, and even if they have to tread water for a while to get used to things, eventually they’ll be ready to swim, James said.

“I’m happy we were able to get our feet underneath us, happy we were able to get back on the floor,” he said. “We know what this season is going to entail. Now, we can move on. We can move on from last year’s season. It was a hell of a run for us in [2019-20], now we can focus on [2020-21].

“We look forward to that.”