With his strong and sturdy frame, LeBron James has proven he can carry a heavy burden. With his sharp basketball intellect, James has shown he can outthink his opponent. And with his disciplined devotion to his craft, James has demonstrated he can still play at an elite level with almost no end in sight.
But with the Los Angeles Lakers laboring to a 116-99 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 5 of their first-round series on Wednesday, it appeared James showed that fatigue finally caught up to him. He finished with 15 points while going only 5-for-17 from the field and 1-for-9 from 3-point range. On one play, Memphis guard Ja Morant threw down a lob nearly over James’ entire body. And James committed five turnovers, a statistical category he takes seriously because of how much he values ball control and strong decision making.
Only James truly knows how his body feels. But one can’t help but wonder if James’ heavy workload only two days ago in the Lakers’ game 4 overtime win over the Grizzlies also caught up to him. Then, James posted 20 points and a career-high 20 rebounds. He often drove to the basket. He drew two charges on Morant. He fulfilled all of this in 45 minutes, which prompted him to admit afterwards he called a timeout on one play because he felt exhausted. The next day, James then hopped on a flight to Memphis. The following day, James sought to dominate the game once again.
It would be foolish for Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks to talk trash again, dismiss the 38-year-old James as “old” or take credit for his shooting struggles. James can certainly bounce back with a stronger performance in Game 6 on Friday in LA. With the Lakers holding a 3-2 series lead and hoping to secure a close-out win, any jousting will backfire just as it did the first time both with James’ teammates and Lakers fans. James has still played at an elite level in his 20th NBA season partly because of how devoted he remains toward his training and dieting.
Safe to presume that James will spend Thursday maximizing his rest and treatment just as he has always done this season. The Lakers have marveled all season with how consistent James has remained with his routine following both wins and losses as well as amid flexible or compressed schedules. The Lakers have also reduced James’ practice time in favor of more game footage study and treatment.
No doubt, James has prepared for this reality. Out of the 51 career playoff series he has competed in, James played in 22 series that required at least six games. He certainly has thrived in deep playoff pushes. Just as the Lakers bounced back from their Game 2 road loss with a pair of home wins, they can also do the same from their Game 5 with a close-out home victory.
But in a year in which the Lakers’ success largely predicates on health, every little development can add up to a big difference. James’ latest effort shows that even the best players can have their limits. It also leaves James further vulnerable with attrition should the Lakers advance deeper into the playoffs. Imagine how tired James might become should the Lakers face the Sacramento Kings or the Golden State Warriors in the second round, two teams that play at a fast pace?
The Lakers could have mitigated these potential challenges in Game 5 if some of James’ teammates were there to elevate him when he needed them the most.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis did his part with 31 points on 14-for-23 shooting and 19 rebounds. That gave James some wiggle room with collecting 10 rebounds, 10 fewer than his career-high Game 4 effort. Still, Austin Reaves (17 points on 4-for-13 shooting) and D’Angelo Russell (11 points on 4-for-11 shooting) didn’t provide enough scoring help. They also did little to slow down the Grizzlies’ backcourt in Demond Bane (33 points on 12-for-21 shooting) and Morant (31 points 13-for-26 clip). Russell (10 assists) and Reaves (six) helped James (five) with the team’s playmaking duties. But a few more shots and a few more stops could have been the difference with ensuring the Lakers eliminated Memphis and receiving up to four days of rest before facing either Sacramento or Golden State next week.
Instead, the Lakers return for a Game 6 with James managing his energy. That stems from both his heavy odometer reading in his 20th season. That also stems from the Lakers playing every other day after enjoying two days in between Game 1 and 2 against Memphis. Then, James might appear more rejuvenated from some recovery. He might receive a jolt of energy from the expected sell-out crowd that will likely spark even more electricity given the game’s significance. James’ teammates might also raise their game partly because of the adrenaline rush and partly to ease James’ workload.
Ideally, the Lakers could have seen that dynamic play out in deeper playoff rounds. They still have an opportunity to make amends with their latest loss. But that partly depends on how well James manages his body, how well the coaching staff manages his workload and how well his teammates reduce his burden.