OAKLAND, Calif. -- Last time anyone saw LeBron James walk off the court and slowly to the locker room with a bit of dejection was last summer after losing the championship to the Warriors.
Back then, only his feelings were hurt. This time, against the same team -- well, at least in name only; more on them in a minute -- the ache was in a more sensitive area. He didn’t return after a left groin strain midway through the third quarter Tuesday, and pending an MRI on Wednesday, the extent of his absence is questionable.
The Lakers managed without him, on the road, against the two-time defending champs, and after the Warriors, on their heels for most of the game, pulled within two points. This was equal parts surprising and impressive. Of course, that was just a sample size; while the Lakers romped 127-101 and what coach Luke Walton called “our most complete game of the season,” what will the near future hold if he misses any extended time?
“It’s uncharted territory with this group,” said Walton.
Indeed. While LeBron’s greatness has been duly noted for much of his career and especially as he approaches his 34th birthday, a more understated factor is his durability. For someone who has logged 1,415 games (regular season and playoffs) and an average of 38 minutes per night, LeBron almost always punches in the time clock. He’s never been seriously injured. His minor injuries rarely restricted him more than a handful of games at a time, and on numerous occasions, his missed time was partially precautionary.
Such will be the case this time; with the Lakers sitting among the top six teams in the West, and it’s not yet January, Walton says there’s no urgency with the injury no matter the severity.
“We don’t know what we’re dealing with yet,” Walton said, and added, “we will be very cautious with him.”
Steph Curry missed 11 games recently with the exact same injury description, although it’s not proper to compare. Bodies are different, degrees of severity are different, recovery is different with everyone. Still, groins (and hamstrings) are unpredictable. They decide when you return, not you.
LeBron is a different creature, though. He didn’t miss a single game last year during the regular season and playoffs and hasn’t missed any this season. It’s an unusual sight, catching LeBron in street clothes and perched on the bench.
He seemed unimpressed by the latest attempt to keep him out of the lineup, which isn’t surprising considering how much care and investment LeBron makes annually with his body.
“Me with injuries, I’ve never been too concerned,” he said. “I was able to walk off (the court) on my own power. We’ll see.”
The goal for the Lakers is to repackage whatever worked for them in the final quarter and a half against the Warriors and apply it until LeBron returns. They were efficient and workmanlike without him, showing poise when the score tightened and then punished Curry and Kevin Durant and the Warriors just before the fourth quarter and reconstructed the blowout.
“We will continue the game plan,” said LeBron. “We just want to play and get better.”
That sounds fine in theory. Yet this is a team that lost its last two games to the Nets and then the Grizzlies at home. Plus, LeBron is the epicenter who controls so much about the Lakers -- pace, creating shots for others, dictating the flow and at times carrying the club -- that it becomes tricky to change on the fly. Not that they have much choice.
It’ll be up to Rondo for leadership, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram for scoring, and assorted others to become gap-fillers during the amount of time, if any, that LeBron misses. Next up are the rapidly-improving Kings in Sacramento, then an intriguing all-city tilt against the Clippers.
If the Christmas Day game was a landmark of sorts for the Lakers this season, was the loss a new low for the Warriors? Ever since the Durant-Draymond Green dust-up a few weeks ago, this team has looked uninspired for stretches. Curry’s injury didn’t help, but even without him, the Warriors bring a hefty enough share of the team that won championships three of the last four years.
Their issues were all on display in one game: a lost lead, massive defensive lapses, Klay Thompson stray shots and yet another struggle against an overmatched club, one without LeBron for almost half the game. Andre Iguodala (23 points) was the only Warrior who didn’t try the spiked eggnog.
On one telling play, Durant blew an uncontested layup and in frustration began jogging downcourt. Seconds later, the man he was supposed to be guarding, backup center Ivica Zubac, was gifted an uncontested dunk.
Not to single out Durant; the Warriors’ funk is a group thing. Green’s three-point shot, now at 24 percent, has deserted him this season and opponents are showing great disrespect by giving him all the room he needs.
“I kind of (screwed) our offense up,” he admitted. “I’ve got to do better.”
Thompson’s efficiency is down both inside and beyond the three-point line and this is the second poor shooting stretch for him this season and January isn’t here yet.
Given all that, the Warriors are 23-12, in a virtual tie with the Nuggets for first in the West, haven’t played their best ball yet for any extended period of time, and we’ve seen how this story ends before.
“We’ll figure it out,” said Durant.
By comparison, the Lakers have the bigger worry. Their young core is still developing, didn’t make the playoffs last season without LeBron, and have become somewhat dependent on him this season, especially in terms of leadership and for his presence in big moments. Obviously this is contingent on the MRI and LeBron’s healing powers. This could very well be a short-term situation.
Walton said part of this season has been spent trying to learn how to “win and compete when he’s not on the floor,” meaning, when LeBron was resting and catching his breath. This is something different. A player who’s been the picture of good health for over a decade is trying to catch a break with this injury.
Without him, will the Lakers limp like LeBron did Thursday, or show what they’ve learned from him?
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