LeBron James could be on the verge of something he hasn’t experienced since May 2010: A playoff exit prior to the NBA Finals. With James’ injury-shortened 2018-19 campaign aside, the perennial All-Star has reached the NBA Finals in each of his last nine playoff runs. After Game 5 of the Los Angeles Lakers’ opening round series against the Phoenix Suns, James finds himself in a rare situation of facing elimination well prior to the NBA Finals.
After dropping Game 1 of the series to the second-seeded Suns, the seventh-seeded Lakers bounced back and took control of the series with wins in Games 2 and 3. Anthony Davis and James combined for 55 points in Los Angeles’ 109-95 win over Phoenix in Game 3, creating a 2-1 series lead for the Lakers.
In Game 5, the Lakers trailed by four points at halftime, but had a much bigger problem on their hands: Davis exited the game early with a groin strain and was ruled out for the rest of the game after scoring just six points on 2-of-9 shooting. James kept the Lakers in the game, playing a team-high 38 minutes and scoring a game-leading 25 points, but the Lakers ultimately fell to the Suns by a 100-92 score in Phoenix.
Davis was ruled out for the pivotal Game 5 that broke the series’ 2-2 tie. With Deandre Ayton having a solid series for the Suns, and with more size on their roster in the form of Jae Crowder and Frank Kaminsky, the Lakers faced an uphill battle without Davis’ defensive abilities in Game 5.
While Davis’ absence didn’t benefit Ayton as much as the Suns might have liked (eight points, seven rebounds), the power forward’s offensive absence was a huge benefit to Phoenix. James put up 24 points in Game 5, along with five rebounds and seven assists in 32 minutes, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Kyle Kuzma added 15 points off the bench on 6-of-13 shooting, and Talen Horton-Tucker scored 11 points, though mostly in garbage time. No other Laker scored in double-digits, and two of the Lakers’ five starters failed to record a single point. Dennis Schroder missed all nine of his shots, while Ben McLemore also posted a dud shooting night, going 0-for-5.
Without Davis to supplement James on offense, the Lakers never had a chance in Game 5. Los Angeles trailed 66-36 at halftime; the largest halftime deficit in James’ postseason career, also tying the Lakers largest halftime deficit in playoff history.
Devin Booker was the Lakers main assailant in Game 5, posting 30 points on 13-of-23 shooting. Chris Paul had a quiet box score (nine points, six assists, four rebounds), but his impact on the court showed with his game-high +34 court rating; nine points higher than his closest teammate.
The Lakers lost Game 5 by that same 30-point margin by a score of 115-85. After one of the most embarrassing losses of his postseason career, James finds himself down 3-2 in the first round of the playoffs, needing back-to-back wins to advance to the second round.
Can the Lakers force a Game 7: without Anthony Davis?
With their backs against the wall, the Lakers take on the Suns in Los Angeles on Thursday night in an attempt to extend their season for at least one more game. Davis’ availability is up in the air, though James is operating under the assumption the former New Orleans Pelicans first overall draft pick won’t be able to suit up.
If that is indeed the case, James and the Lakers will have to alter the game plan to avoid a repeat of Game 5. On paper, James needs to do his thing: Take control of the game in an elimination situation. James averages 33.7 points per game in postseason elimination games; the highest mark in NBA history. James has proved time and time again that he can step up with the season on the line, staving off elimination most famously when down 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals. The four-time NBA Finals MVP also led both teams in all major statistical categories in that seven-game series.
Is it realistic to expect James to tap into that same form, five years later, at 36 years old? Perhaps not. However, is it what the Lakers will need in Games 6 and 7? Most likely.
James will likely spend as much of Game 6 on the court as possible, especially if Davis remains out. In a worst case scenario, we could see a desperate James trying to do too much due to the little help he’ll have on the court. In elimination games, however, “desperate” isn’t usually the type of game James plays. “Focused” and “determined” are better indicators of how James plays in these situations. He hasn’t risen to every single occasion, with a particularly weak comeback attempt against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. However, for the better part of the last decade, James has elevated his game when it matters most.
On the other hand, it doesn’t take an NBA expert to predict the Lakers game plan in Game 6: Playing through LeBron James. This isn’t to say he’ll take every shot, but the offense will undoubtedly flow through James as the Lakers attempt to extend the series. The Suns know this, and with a solid defense and Coach of the Year Monty Williams on the sideline, their defensive scheme will revolve around limiting James’ production.
If Davis is healthy enough to play, the Lakers offense would become much more dynamic. If the Suns focus their defensive attention on James, Davis could be left with more opportunities to score. Without Davis, however, the Lakers offensive arsenal suddenly becomes much weaker.
Kyle Kuzma, for instance, is a capable scorer and could be the second-most important player on the court if Davis misses Game 6. However, he has proven to be a streaky shooter, prone to both great and poor shooting nights. He works much better as a third or fourth option.
If the Suns can lock up Kuzma and keep James’ scoring to a minimum, it would force Dennis Schroder, Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the Lakers bench to step up big time. If Kuzma and James combine for less than 50 points, I have a hard time believing the rest of the team could pick up the slack to score another 50-60 points that would be necessary to outscore the high-flying Suns.
In all, the Lakers need a productive outing from James, while also relying on their bench to step up when it matters most. Both of these requirements are asking a lot, but the Lakers will need to accomplish both tasks in order to force a Game 7.
Will the Lakers come back from a 3-2 deficit and win the series?
The Suns enter Game 6 as three-point favorites. The availability of Davis has a significant effect on the outcome of the game. Los Angeles is 1-1 in the Staples Center so far in this series and will host Game 6.
While it will be an uphill battle, I believe James can flip the switch and put on an incredible performance at home in Game 6. Even if James scores 35-45 points, he will still need his teammates to step up in Davis’ expected absence. The fate of the Lakers season may be in James’ hands, but without a solid effort from his teammates, a historic night from James could be for naught.
If Davis is a surprise addition to the Lakers starting lineup on Thursday night, I’m comfortable predicting a Lakers win in Los Angeles.
With or without Davis, Game 7 would be anything but a sure thing for the Lakers. The Suns have taken two of three games in Phoenix so far, though they did split 1-1 in games that Davis participated in.
If Davis can’t suit up for Game 7, I wouldn’t expect back-to-back miracle games from the Lakers. The supporting cast just hasn’t been enough to warrant picking the Lakers in consecutive elimination games. Los Angeles may be able to rely on James’ heroics for one game, but to win this series, they’ll need Davis in Game 7.