With his Los Angeles Lakers playing on the second night of a back-to-back and their No. 1 seed in the Western Conference secure, LeBron James sat with a sore groin against the Houston Rockets on Thursday, and the result laid bare just how much weight the four-time MVP carries for another championship favorite.
The Rockets, also without former MVP Russell Westbrook (thigh contusion), spanked the Lakers, 113-97. Houston’s other MVP, James Harden, amassed 39 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds in 36 minutes, putting anyone who dared defend him in a blender sharpened with footwork and shotmaking. He operated as he has in leading his team to 50-plus wins in five of the last six years, with or without a bona fide costar.
Conversely, the Lakers’ result was not unlike what we became accustomed to from All-NBA big man Anthony Davis’ New Orleans Pelicans in recent seasons. Davis missed the playoffs in three of the last four years before joining James in L.A., and the LeBron-less Lakers looked an awful lot like a team that did not belong on a big stage on Thursday. Davis looked disinterested and still posted 17 points and 12 boards.
The Lakers have outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions with James on the floor and have been outscored by 1.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench — a wild discrepancy for a team that entered the break on a 64-win pace. According to Cleaning the Glass, Lakers lineups with James on the court and Davis on the bench are plus-10.8 points per 100 possessions, better than the Milwaukee Bucks. Flip that around, and they are barely outscoring their opponents, closer to the Phoenix Suns’ level.
It cannot be said enough how remarkable it is that James is bearing that burden at 35 years old, and the Lakers will soon ask him to do it in the playoffs after four months off and a handful of games to prepare.
And LeBron will surely respond.
But there is one development in his absence on Thursday that should concern the Lakers going forward. The Rockets made 21 of their 57 three-point attempts against a Lakers team missing its best perimeter defender, Avery Bradley (opted out of the bubble). Meanwhile, the Lakers finished 2-for-18 from three-point range, a night after going 5-for-37 from distance in a lopsided loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Frank Vogel on the Lakers' shooting issues:— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) August 7, 2020
"There's always a reversion to the mean. The law of averages always plays out. I'm just glad we're getting these misses out of the way now."
That is a problem when Damian Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers loom as a potential first-round playoff opponent in 11 days, and the Rockets could follow in the second round. We know LeBron can flip the switch. There is no evidence the rest of the Lakers can. They did nothing of the sort against Houston.
Davis left the court with his team trailing by 15 points at the end of the third quarter. The Lakers started Dion Waiters, Talen Horton-Tucker, J.R. Smith, Markieff Morris and Dwight Howard in the fourth, and they sliced Houston’s lead to five over the next four minutes. Then, Houston turned on the afterburners. Harden coasted to a layup; Robert Covington, Harden and Austin Rivers drilled threes on consecutive possessions; and the Rockets were up 16 before Lakers coach Frank Vogel could even consider turning to Davis again.
Remember, Houston was without Westbrook and Eric Gordon (ankle). James will have to be superhuman to close the considerable gap between the rest of the Lakers and a healthy Rockets team, and he just may be.
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