LOS ANGELES – Instead of receiving perhaps the best Christmas gift aside from an NBA championship, the Lakers received a lump of coal in the form of a sluggish 126-115 loss to the hated Boston Celtics on Monday.
Instead of spreading holiday cheer, Lakers star LeBron James delivered somber news as he analyzed the state of the franchise.
“I don’t think we’re healthy right now,” James said. “I don’t think we’re where we want to be to compete against the top teams until we get better and better.”
James said those words in the locker room after accidentally bumping his left knee into the back of Celtics guard Jaylen Brown with 4:02 left in the second quarter. After that incident that James called “a freak play,” both Brown and James lay motionless for several moments before standing up. After sitting on the bench, James checked back in at the 2:41 mark.
Though Lakers coach Darvin Ham called James “a soldier” for staying in the game, the Lakers star hardly played at his best in an NBA record 18th Christmas Day game. He finished with 16 points on 5-for-14 shooting along with nine rebounds, eight assists, three turnovers and prolonged pain.
“It’s still here. My knee is a little sore right now,” James said. “The best thing is finally the schedule is in our favor with two days before we have to play again.”
Considering the Lakers (16-15) play the Charlotte Hornets (7-20) on Thursday, they should experience some post-holiday relief following a recently taxing schedule. But after already struggling to compete against the NBA’s elite teams this season, including the Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Boston Celtics, the Lakers’ fortunes do not just rest on James healing a recent injury just before he turns 39 on Saturday. It also involves sorting out other issues.
The Lakers have had players miss a combined 92 games due to injuries, which has recently entailed Gabe Vincent reportedly needing surgery on his left knee while James (left ankle), Anthony Davis (left ankle), Jarred Vanderbilt (left heel) and Rui Hachimura (left wrist) nurse other ailments. The Lakers have fielded eight starting lineups, including a new one for the past two games that have prioritized size around James and Davis (Vanderbilt, Cam Reddish, Taurean Prince) while featuring their more dependable playmakers and shooters handling bench roles. (Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell).
The Lakers have gone 2-6 since winning the NBA’s In-Season tournament that made each player $500,000 richer while becoming significantly poorer elsewhere. The Lakers care most about potentially winning their 18th NBA title than hanging a banner to help the NBA’s latest initiative to spice up the regular season. After going 7-0 during the IST, the Lakers inevitably have not showed the same sharpness in games that don’t yield additional cash prizes. In fairness, the Lakers have also lacked such zip after playing eight of their past 10 games on the road in 18 days.
Following the Lakers’ latest setback, Lakers coach Darvin Ham hardly bemoaned the team for missing out on defeating its most hated rival or even competing against a team it could have to face should it even reach the NBA Finals. Instead, Ham offered a tip on how to thrive through the grind.
“We can’t skip the details,” Ham said. “We can’t get bored with the details.”
And if they do? Well then, the Lakers will experience what happened against the Celtics.
They stormed out to a 12-0 lead while they missed their first five shots and lost on the boards (5-2). Despite featuring a starting lineup that could defend better to compensate for such offensive struggles, the Lakers had no answer for Boston’s starting lineup. Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis (28 points, 11 rebounds), forward Jayson Tatum (25), Brown (19), Derrick White (18) and Jrue Holiday (18) all cracked double figures. Davis countered with 40 points on 15-for-26 shooting and 13 rebounds, a performance that James called “phenomenal.” Too bad the rest of the Lakers shot a combined 28-for-64 from the field (43%). Despite cutting the Celtics’ lead to 58-57 at halftime, the Lakers never appeared seriously threatening.
“Buckle down defensively,” Davis said. “There’s too many mistakes.”
Can the Lakers correct those mistakes? Will that simply be enough?
The Lakers face an interesting crossroads. Plenty of their early-season inconsistency points to correctible circumstances. Yet, the Lakers also have some identity issues, too.
They have become saddled with injuries. But unlike in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, the Lakers have injuries to players mostly in their prime. That means the Lakers should bank on having a healthier roster in 2024. Though the Lakers will always have to monitor James and Davis with care, they have mostly shown more encouraging signs than red flags that they can mostly stay durable and play at a high level.
The Lakers’ schedule hasn’t been easy. It should sort itself out, however, after the New Year. Following a presumably easy win over Charlotte on Thursday, the Lakers face a back-to-back against Minnesota (Saturday) and New Orleans (Sunday). After that, though, the Lakers play 10 of their 15 games in January at home. Though those games feature a mix of playoff contenders and rebuilding teams, the Lakers at least won’t have the same travel itinerary. One of those “road” games is against the Clippers.
“I’m not distraught or not seeing it for what it is. It’s the NBA season,” Ham said. “You’re going to go through your ebbs and flows,” he said. “You’ve got teams that have been together and are going to be clicking, and you’ve got some teams that are struggling, especially coming into the second and third quarters of an 82-game season.”
Yet, some of the Lakers’ struggles may not be as easily correctible.
The Lakers have lost games even with James playing at his best. The same thing has happened with Davis, including Monday’s loss to Boston. Meanwhile, the Lakers’ role players have shown all types of inconsistency with their shooting (Reaves, Russell), health (Hachimura, Vincent, Vanderbilt) and chemistry (everyone). The Lakers’ new starting lineup thrived against an Oklahoma City Thunder team that could also become a serious playoff contender. Yet, the Lakers’ new and old lineups have struggled to forge any consistent offensive or defensive identity against both good and bad teams.
That may prompt some Lakers fans to believe the front office needs to make a move before the Feb. 5 trade deadline. Expect the Lakers to be active as they always are. Even if Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine or another star becomes available, however, the Lakers are better off prioritizing the imperfect depth they have over a third star that leaves them with little supporting cast, no matter how inconsistent.
As the Lakers showed during their run last season to the Western Conference Finals, plenty of developments can change quickly throughout a season. That’s why it’s too simplistic to say the Lakers-Celtics game on Christmas offered clarity on whether both teams could actually meet in the NBA Finals. Nonetheless, the Lakers-Celtics matchup provided a measuring stick on both teams’ progress. For the Lakers, they have plenty of work ahead.
“I agree with Coach Ham as far as the details,” James said. “You don’t have much room for error. You have to be detail-oriented.”