June 15, 2024

GEJ

Business Woman

2 quotes from LeBron, Russell Westbrook reveal season is over

In terms of the standings — the Play-In, and (gulp) championship hopes — the 2021-22 Los Angeles Lakers season realistically came to an end on Friday at Crypto.com Arena. Despite getting LeBron James and Anthony Davis back from injuries — marking just the 21st time they’ve suited up alongside Russell Westbrook — the Lakers lost 114-111 to the New Orleans Pelicans.

They were up by five points with five minutes to go. The Pelicans then embarked on a 13-4 run. The Lakers missed six of their last eight field-goal attempts, culminating in a LeBron air-ball at the buzzer.

The Lakers’ season can be encapsulated by their late-game collapse. Instead of seizing a major opportunity, they wilted. Instead of executing precise offensive sets, they were out of sorts. Their unreliable free-throw shooting reared its head.

“Those are little things that are the difference between winning and losing, turning the basketball over, committing to getting great shots every time down,” Frank Vogel said. “The defensive execution, our schemes and our coverages.”

“Just feels like you can’t catch a break,” LeBron lamented. “No matter what’s going on on the floor, it just feels like the ball bounces the other way. The ball doesn’t always bounce in our favor. Or a call doesn’t go in our favor. It’s just like, when it rains, it pours for our year. It’s just the way it’s been going.”

Anthony Davis, playing his first game since Feb. 16 (mid-foot sprain), was productive and impressive. But, he admitted to running out of gas and enduring discomfort in his foot in the fourth quarter. AD dropped 23 points and 12 rebounds but shot 1-of-5 in the final frame.

The Lakers (31-46) are not mathematically eliminated, yet. But they are a full game — really two, counting the tiebreaker — behind the San Antonio Spurs (32-45) with five games to go. The Spurs will once again host the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, while the banged-up Lakers will face Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Sunday afternoon (12:30 PT), less than 48 hours after the second leg of a home-road back-to-back. Not ideal. (The Lakers, by the way, haven’t won consecutive contests since the first week of January.)

“Until it says we’re eliminated, it doesn’t,” LeBron defiantly uttered, when asked if he feels the season is kaput. “Until that moment, we’ll know what our destiny is, but right now, we don’t. So keep pushing forward.”

LeBron’s words are well and good, but they don’t align with the obvious, gradually deflated spirit of this group. After this loss, especially, they know the season is toast. In fact, there were two other quotes from the solemn postgame proceedings — another from LeBron, one from Russell Westbrook — that make that reality starkly evident.

Russell Westbrook: “I don’t pay attention to this crowd.”

Westbrook, a Los Angeles native, has been at odds with Lakers fans throughout the season. He said he didn’t want his kids at home games. In the arena, the fans’ intrusion in his headspace is palpable; they groan or heckle after every miss or mistake. They sarcastically cheer when he drills a jumper. Any goodwill he establishes after an exciting take is negated by his next error. The vibe has been genuinely awkward at times. Correspondingly, his road splits are far superior to his home production.

It might cost the Lakers two future first-round picks, but Russ will probably be traded after this season. His one campaign in Los Angeles has been historically disastrous. He will be blamed (unfairly) for a trade that dismantled a championship-proven squad and hamstrung the team’s future.

On Friday, after putting up 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting and fouling out, Russ was typically curt in his postgame remarks. At one point, he was asked about sensing the energy change in the building as the Pelicans embarked on a 7-0 run with around three minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

“I don’t pay attention to this crowd, to be honest,” Russ stated, dismissively.

That does not sound like a person who is in touch with his fanbase nor seems invested in establishing any type of relationship with it (compare that with how the OKC crowd embraced him). That isn’t a dude interested in gearing up the crowd for a playoff run. It sounds like a man ready to move on. Frankly, I get it.

LeBron James: “It was pretty much a must-win for us.”

In the run-up to the Lakers’ previous matchup against the Pelicans — one week ago — Westbrook labeled the game a “must-win.” Vogel acknowledged that his team had discussed the importance of the game to the playoff chase. The Lakers blew a 23-point lead and lost.

The stakes were higher for Friday’s rematch. The Lakers really needed this one, hence LeBron and AD’s presence in the starting lineup.

To no avail. The Lakers got plenty of production from their hobbled stars, at least until the final minutes (LeBron poured in another 38 points). Yet, it was the lackluster supporting cast around them that simply couldn’t pull its weight. Afterward, LeBron — not for the first time this season — was blunt about his team’s shortcomings.

“The big picture is that it pretty much was a must-win for us, and we didn’t get the job done,” he said. “We had great opportunities throughout the night, and we didn’t make enough plays down the stretch. So that’s the big picture.”

Any last vestiges of optimism were tied to the return of LeBron and Anthony Davis. After Friday’s devastating defeat, it’s hard to justify having any remaining belief in the 2021-22 Lakers.

On the plus side: It’s summertime.

Nuggets, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray