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Lakers swept by Nuggets, LeBron considers future

The Lakers are swept in the Western Conference Finals by the Denver Nuggets as LeBron James thinks about retirement.

LOS ANGELES — Even as he felt fatigued, nursed various ailments and faced relentless competition, LeBron James began a potential close-out game the same way he did throughout this turbulent season. James left nothing unturned with still dominating the game, delaying Father Time and inspiring the Lakers.

As those elements became more exhausting, painful and stressful, James ended a close-out game the same way these Lakers often experienced throughout the 2022-23 campaign. Father Time eventually caught up. The Lakers failed to execute in key moments. And they walked away frustrated with the results.

The Lakers experienced a 113-111 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals on Monday at Crypto.com Arena, an outcome that ensured more than just the Nuggets sweeping the Lakers and advancing to the NBA Finals in franchise history.  It also brings up conflicting developments surrounding their star player. He posted 40 points while shooting 15-for-25 from the field, 4-for-7 from deep and 6-for-7 from the free-throw line along with 10 rebounds, nine assists and two steals. But the game ended with James missing a baseline jumper and a shot in the paint on the Lakers’ final two possessions. And afterwards, James suggested he may have to ponder what his own future looks like following his 20th NBA season.

“I’ve got a lot to think about, to be honest,” James said. “Just for me personally going forward with the
game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about.”

James later told ESPN that means he might think about retiring. Bleacher Report reported James will weigh whether he will honor the final two years of his $97 million contract, which includes a player option for his final season. But a person familiar with James’ thinking expressed skepticism to The Sporting Tribune about James’ possible retirement after the 2022-23 season.

“He still loves the game and is still playing at a high level,” the person told the Sporting Tribune. “So, I don’t see it.”

James’ Game 4 performance captured both the highs and lows with how he tried to play at a high level.

He posted 21 points in the first quarter after shooting 7-for-9 from the field and 4-for-4 from 3-point range. He nearly surpassed his playoff-series averages through the first three games (23.7). He already fared better from deep than what he shot in the first three games (3-for-15).

“He just came out with a mindset to keep this thing going,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “He came in the building, as he’s been all year, all throughout the playoffs, with a focus, a determination, to get it done by any means necessary.”

James attacked the basket aggressively even when he drew additional wear and tear on his 38-year-old body. On his first play, Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. accidentally swiped at James’ head and sent him to the ground. James stood up without any issues. James’ legs also looked fresher when he pulled up from deep. He even made a 3 after a lob to Rui Hachimura accidentally dropped into the basket.

By halftime, James already posted 31 points while going 11-for-13 from the field and 4-for-4 from 3-point range after scoring an additional 10 second-quarter points and making all four of his shot attempts. It appeared James could surpass his postseason career-high 51 points in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals. In related news, the Lakers held a 73-58 half-time lead.

“You train the mind, the body will fall where it may and take care of the rest,” James said. “Knowing that I’m coming into a game where I may have to play a full game, that’s just my mindset.”

By playing a nearly full game, however, James eventually wore down. The Nuggets outscored the Lakers, 36-16 in the third quarter by going 13-for-27 from the field while the Lakers only 7-for-24 of their shots. James added six points on 3-for-6 shooting while playing the entire third quarter, but he looked more passive with his off-ball movement, driving and passing. In the fourth quarter, James posted only three points while going 1-for-6 from the field and missing his lone 3-point attempt.

With the Nuggets holding a 113-111 lead with 31.3 seconds left and 3.6 seconds remaining on the shot clock, James hoisted a fadeaway jumper that hit the side of the backboard. Following a timeout, James had another chance to make a big play. With Denver still nursing the same lead with 4.0 seconds left, James drove inside only to meet Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon and guard Jamal Murray into the paint. James could neither make the shot nor draw a foul.  

“We had a great run but we fell short of our goal,” James said. “Our goal is to win championships. That’s what this franchise is about and we fell short of that. That’s disappointing.”

Therefore, James had little interest with reflecting with any nostalgia on his 20th NBA season. Instead, he lamented that he missed a combined 13 games from late February through late March after injuring a tendon in his right foot that doctors initially thought required surgery. James chose more non-invasive treatment and reported feeling “excited” with the Lakers new trade deadline additions following the Russell Westbrook trade.

James still remained a critical part of the Lakers’ making a late push for the team’s play-in tournament as well as the team’s post-season series wins over Memphis and Golden State. The Lakers lauded him for how he stayed disciplined with his around-the-clock treatment, while playing post-season games nearly every other day. By the time the Lakers faced Denver, though, James appeared more physically limited.

It didn’t help that the Nuggets boasted the Western Conference’s best record while fielding one of the league’s best centers (Nikola Jokic), a fully healthy dynamic point guard (Murray) and lots of depth (Porter Jr. Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown). Afterwards, James and Anthony Davis agreed this season’s Nuggets team represented the best squad they ever faced during their four years together. That’s saying something considering the Lakers beat the Miami Heat in the 2020 NBA Finals before losing in the first-round to Phoenix (2021) and then missing the playoffs entirely (2022).

“Just well orchestrated, well put together,” James said. “They have scoring. They have shooting. They have play-making. They have smarts. They have length. They have depth.”

As for the Lakers? The Lakers’ identity centered on a healthy and effective James and Davis. But the Lakers dramatically improved following the trade deadline with a dynamic playmaker (D’Angelo Russell), an interior defender (Jarred Vanderbilt) and a developing wing (Rui Hachimura) to complement their incumbent role players (Austin Reaves, Lonnie Walker IV, Dennis Schroder). Yet, those players showed varying degrees of consistency in the playoffs. Only James, Davis, Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and Mo Bamba are under contract for next season.

“I’m not quite sure what the roster will look like next year,” James said before deferring to Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka. “They are going to figure out the best way to put this team together to go forward in the fall. But it’s not like we have a team full of multi-year guys that’s stuck in a contract right now. So, I don’t know, we’ll see.”

James will also see about his own future, though a person familiar with his thinking predicted he will eventually decide to keep playing.

“There’s not many years left,” the person said. “But I don’t think this is the year.”

Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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