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    Lakers’ Opener Shows Its Stars Are Not Yet Aligned

    A team that remade its roster around big names finds that getting them all on the same page is still a work in progress.LOS ANGELES — Anthony Davis still remembers the narrative that trailed him to Los Angeles: “Can he do it under the bright lights?”Davis had been a stat-stuffing star with the New Orleans Pelicans before forcing his way out, landing with the Lakers in a trade before the start of the 2019-20 season. His first game was against the Clippers, who limited him to a subpar effort in a Lakers loss. Afterward, Davis was beating himself up at his locker. LeBron James, who was sitting next to him, advised him to calm down.“You’re fine,” James told him. “This is Game 1.”And then James promptly went back to laughing at whatever he was looking at on his phone.It was an exchange that stuck with Davis, who wound up playing well enough that season to help deliver the Lakers’ first championship in 10 years. And it was one that Davis fondly remembered on Tuesday night after the Lakers’ season-opening loss to the Golden State Warriors. Something about it felt familiar to him.A new teammate, Russell Westbrook, had assembled a forgettable performance in his debut for the Lakers — 8 points in 35 frustrating minutes — that prompted James, with Davis’s help this time, to offer another post-Game 1 pep talk.“We’re with him,” Davis said of Westbrook. “It’s his job to continue to be himself, and we’re going to help him through all the little avenues and these challenges along the way.”James said he told Westbrook to go home and watch a comedy.“Do something that can put a smile on his face,” James said. “He’s so hard on himself.”The Lakers have emphasized star power over youth as they have rebuilt their roster.Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated PressOne game does not mean a whole lot when there are 81 left to play. For the Lakers, their grand experiment — so many aging stars, only one basketball — will resume on Friday against the Phoenix Suns, who eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs last season. In the wake of that first-round exit, the Lakers used the summer to surround James and Davis with a fascinating cast of characters, including Westbrook, the winner of the 2017 Most Valuable Player Award and a triple-double factory in his heyday.Now 32, Westbrook is as polarizing as ever. Can he produce without having the ball in his hands most of the time? Can he find his jump shot? Will he help the Lakers, or ultimately hurt them?Again, the Lakers’ 121-114 loss to the Warriors was merely the first game of many. But it was a clunker for Westbrook, who finished with 8 points, five rebounds and four assists while shooting 4 of 13 from the field. In the 35 minutes he was on the court, the Lakers were outscored by 23 points. He also had four turnovers and a technical foul.His news conference was brief and fairly monosyllabic.What did it mean to him that James and Davis had given him some encouragement in the locker room? “We talked,” Westbrook said.What did he make of the ambience at Staples Center? “I would say I wasn’t paying much mind to be honest,” he said.OK, how about it being his first game for the Lakers, his hometown team? “Nothing different than a normal game day,” he said.You get the idea. The spotlight will only burn brighter from here — on the Lakers, on Westbrook, and on their decision to trade for him this summer instead of working out a deal with the Sacramento Kings for Buddy Hield, a shooting guard who would seem a better fit to play off the ball with the likes of James and Davis.“Him more than anybody, it’s going to be an adjustment period,” Coach Frank Vogel said of Westbrook. “He’s coming into our culture, our system. He’s the new guy, and he’s got to find his way.”Vogel cited the team’s patchwork preseason in explaining away some of Westbrook’s hiccups. Nobody played that many minutes together. Westbrook’s numbers in four games — 35 percent shooting, a team-high 23 turnovers — would have been more alarming if the preseason actually meant anything.For his part, James said he suspected that Westbrook had succumbed to “first-game jitters” as a player who had watched the Lakers growing up.“And now you’re putting on a Laker uniform and you’re stepping into Staples Center,” James said. “I can only imagine how many friends and family have contacted him over the last 48 hours.”The real referendum on Westbrook’s viability will play out over the coming weeks, though there are larger questions about how this Lakers team was assembled. In recent seasons, they have essentially gutted their roster of the young players they had drafted and were working to develop — everyone from Brandon Ingram to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — in favor of acquiring older, splashier players.Jordan Poole had 20 points for the Warriors.Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated PressGolden State provided a useful counterpoint to the Lakers’ approach on Tuesday by showcasing Jordan Poole, a third-year guard who scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half and helped make up for Stephen Curry’s poor shooting night. Klay Thompson, who is expected to return to the Warriors’ lineup in a couple of months after missing the past two seasons with injuries, watched from the bench.Worth noting: All three of those players are Golden State draft picks. The Warriors continue to build from within while the Lakers go shopping every summer.It was not all bad news for the Lakers. James and Davis were as dynamic as ever, combining for 67 points. But they could have used some help.“I’ve got to figure it out,” Westbrook said. More

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    LeBron James Laughs at Your ‘Old’ Lakers Memes. After His Nap.

    The Los Angeles Lakers have five players who are at least 35 years old, including the 36-year-old James. Older, wiser, championship?LeBron James has seen the memes and read the punch lines.“The narrative about our age,” he said, “I kind of laugh at it. I actually do really laugh. I’m not just saying that.”The Los Angeles Lakers are old. They are the N.B.A.’s Traveling Wilburys, an aging rock star collective hoping to produce one more chart-topping album. Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan have more mileage between them than a 2003 Honda Civic. Carmelo Anthony, 37, recalled first getting to know James, 36, when they were high school standouts — way back in the previous millennium. At 32, Russell Westbrook is comparatively spry.It all could make for an all-encompassing disaster. Or it could be an extraordinary success. But the Lakers will not be boring.“I don’t think it’s going to be like peanut butter and jelly to start the season,” James told reporters on Tuesday ahead of training camp. “But that’s all part of the process.”As change swirls around him, James remains the franchise’s central force. On the cusp of his 19th N.B.A. season and his fourth with the Lakers, he has had an eventful tenure in Los Angeles. Year 1: an injury-marred season for James that the Lakers punctuated with a losing record. Year 2: the death of Kobe Bryant, followed by a championship run in the league’s pandemic-era bubble. Year 3: more injuries and a first-round playoff exit.Ahead of Year 4, James donned a hard hat as the Lakers underwent a hefty renovation. Only James, Anthony Davis and Talen Horton-Tucker remain from last season, though a couple of familiar faces — Howard and Rajon Rondo, both 35 — are back after helping the Lakers win a title two seasons ago.“It was exciting helping put this team together this summer,” said James, who might as well have a front office role.In his own small way, James reinvented himself, too, by slightly slimming down at this august stage of his career.“He’s made the decision to come back a little bit leaner,” Rob Pelinka, the team’s general manager, said last week. “And I think that’s going to translate in his explosiveness and his quickness.”Pelinka said he had outlined three objectives ahead of the draft and free agency: Add playmakers, find more shooting and, finally, shift back to employing two defensive-minded centers to both augment Davis’s presence in the post and remove some of the physical demands on him. Pelinka wound up raiding a warehouse of vintage All-Stars.“A lot of times when you put a group of players together — a group of talent like we have — it doesn’t work out,” said Anthony, who spent last season with the Portland Trail Blazers. “But I think where we’re at in our careers and understanding what we have to do, understanding the sacrifices that we all have to make in order for us to work, that’s the beauty of the actual journey that we’re about to go on.”Russell Westbrook, who is from the Los Angeles area and played at U.C.L.A., was traded to the Lakers from the Wizards in August.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated PressCarmelo Anthony spent the past two seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers before joining the Lakers this summer.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated PressWestbrook, a former winner of the N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award, spent last season with the Washington Wizards before he was traded to the Lakers in August. Westbrook called it a “blessing” to be playing in Los Angeles, where he grew up. James said he and Westbrook had been “tied at the hip” since the summer.“I think it’s because we both understand and know what it takes in order to win, and obviously LeBron knows what it takes to get to that next level,” Westbrook said.To that end, the Lakers have already managed to avoid a potential distraction dogging several other teams, including the Nets and the Golden State Warriors: Pelinka said the Lakers would be fully vaccinated by the time they open their season against Golden State on Oct. 19.“I know that I was very skeptical about it all,” James said. “But after doing my research and things of that nature, I felt like it was best suited for not only me but for my family and my friends, and that’s why I decided to do it.”At the same time, James said he would not his use his public platform to urge others to be vaccinated.“I don’t feel like for me personally that I should get involved in what other people should do for their bodies,” he said.It was not a topic that James seemed to relish, though the spotlight will presumably settle on the Lakers’ wild on-court chemistry experiment soon enough. And there will be a feeling of urgency for everyone involved.There is not much of a clear future for the Lakers, at least not in the painstaking let’s-make-sure-we-plan-beyond-this-season sense. In acquiring the likes of Davis in 2019 and Westbrook this year, the Lakers have traded away several promising players and an armada of first-round draft picks. The idea has been to win now, no matter the cost.But the aging process is undefeated, and there are obvious concerns about the Lakers’ durability. James, so indestructible for much of his career, has been hampered by injuries in recent years, and Davis limped through the team’s abridged playoff appearance last season. For his part, Pelinka sought to downplay the suggestion that the Lakers were brittle by citing the example of Tom Brady, who, at 44, is still quarterbacking football teams to Super Bowls.Amid the doubts and the questions about the Lakers, Anthony can make out a path that leads to a championship ring, which would be his first. There were moments in his career, he said, when he considered the possibility of teaming up with James, one of his closest friends. The opportunity never materialized. Perhaps neither player was ready for that to happen, Anthony said.“But here we are now,” he said. “Timing is everything.” More

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    Westbrook Always Plays With Stars. But Will They Align on the Lakers?

    Russell Westbrook has played with the N.B.A.’s best, with limited success. Here’s what that says about him, and what it could mean in Los Angeles.Russell Westbrook is coming off one of his best seasons, having posted a career high in rebounds and another in assists that was enough to lead the N.B.A. And for the fourth time in five seasons, he averaged the vaunted triple-double, typically defined as reaching double-digit numbers in points, rebounds and assists. Before Westbrook, it seemed almost impossible to average a triple-double once, much less multiple times.But those numbers weren’t good enough to land him on the All-Star team last season, the first time the 32-year-old hadn’t been selected since 2014. It was in part because his Washington Wizards were not very good. But the Wizards’ barely making the playoffs was a perfect microcosm of the general debate about Westbrook’s legacy: It’s not a sure thing that Westbrook’s style of play is conducive to winning basketball, even with his gaudy numbers.And now Westbrook is with the Los Angeles Lakers, traded for the third time in three years. Former Most Valuable Player Award winners like Westbrook typically do not play for four different teams in successive seasons while still putting up numbers comparable to when they won the honor.Westbrook will again have superstar teammates, this time LeBron James and Anthony Davis on an unequivocally so-called superteam. On paper, this new iteration of stars assembled to chase a championship should easily compete with teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, the reigning champions, and the Nets, both of whom have star trios of their own.Westbrook is a less efficient shooter than Kyle Kuzma, right, one of the players he was traded for.Mark J. Terrill/Associated PressThis will most likely be the best chance Westbrook has had to win a championship.These Lakers are better than the Oklahoma City Thunder team Westbrook helped take to the finals in 2012 alongside a young Kevin Durant and James Harden, where the three M.V.P.s-to-be were outmatched against the James-led Miami Heat superteam. These Lakers are more talented than the 2017-18 Thunder team with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, which bowed out in the first round of the playoffs. When Westbrook reunited with Harden — now a bona fide star — in Houston in 2019-20, James’s Lakers easily dispatched them in the postseason’s second round. And it goes without saying that the current Lakers team is better than last season’s Wizards, even though Westbrook was playing with Bradley Beal, one of the league’s best scorers.Westbrook has not lacked for star teammates, but he has lacked the success that is expected to come with having them, and that may be an indictment of his style of play: high-volume scoring, weak shooting and elite rebounding that is devalued in favor of shooting. Some of this is also an indictment of the rosters Westbrook has played with. The 2017-18 Thunder team had an ill-fitting Anthony, who had difficulty adjusting to a lesser role. In Houston, the Rockets traded away center Clint Capela and opted to play small ball, which had limited effectiveness. In Washington, the Wizards dealt with injuries to key players, like Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant, and were hampered by a coronavirus outbreak.But if Westbrook can’t figure out how to win next to James and Davis, who won a championship with some of the players the Lakers traded for Westbrook, it will be a blow to Westbrook’s legacy.The Wizards lost in the first round of the playoffs last season.Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports, via ReutersAfter Durant left the Thunder in 2016, Westbrook became the focal point, and the Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for three straight years.A large part of the issue with Westbrook is that he has been an inefficient scorer for much of his career. His career true shooting percentage — which accounts for free throws and 3-pointers — is 52.8 percent, whereas the league average is around 55 percent. And he takes up a lot of possessions to score his points as a result.His defense has also been suspect.This is where his joining James and Davis makes for a fascinating, and potentially treacherous, situation. Two of the players the Lakers traded for Westbrook — Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — were helpful defensively and with floor spacing. That meant they didn’t need the ball in their hands to make their presence felt on the floor. Kuzma shot 36.1 percent from 3 last season, while Caldwell-Pope was at 41 percent. Westbrook’s career average from 3 is 30.5 percent. A data point helpful to Westbrook: Kuzma shot only 31.6 percent from 3 in the Lakers’ championship year.The fit with Westbrook, James and Davis will be a mad experiment. Westbrook needs the ball in his hands to be effective, while James usually runs his team’s offense. James’s best teams have been loaded with shooters to toss the ball to when he drives into the paint. Davis is one of the most offensively skilled big men but, like Westbrook, inconsistent from 3, at 31.2 percent for his career. Even James is a career 34.5 percent shooter from deep — around average.This means the Lakers will presumably start three players who aren’t the most reliable shooters in today’s N.B.A., which is so dependent on efficient offense generated by spacing. The Lakers have some counters with their other additions: Kent Bazemore, Anthony and Wayne Ellington — all of whom shot better than 40 percent from 3 last season.Westbrook’s addition to the Lakers makes this one of the most intriguing roster constructions in the last decade.Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports, via ReutersWestbrook’s career usage rate — how often he uses possessions — is 32.51 percent, second to only Michael Jordan in N.B.A. history. James is fifth at 31.55 percent. If Westbrook is using more possessions than James next season, something has gone terribly wrong. For the Lakers to be at their best, Westbrook is going to have to take a back seat, and some players — think Allen Iverson — don’t adjust well to that, because their skills and ego don’t allow them to.Players have steadily complimented Westbrook as a teammate. But does he know that he will have to watch the ball a lot more than he’s used to? With the Wizards last season, according to the league’s tracking numbers, Westbrook’s usage percentage with Beal on the floor was about 26 percent, compared with 33.9 percent when Beal was off. For Beal, his rate was at about 29.8 percent with Westbrook on, and 38.2 with him off. But the Wizards didn’t have a third player of Davis’s caliber.Westbrook will be helpful if he plays to his strengths. He is a relentless slasher and because of his ball-handling and penetration, he will create easier shots for James and Davis. He also pushes the fast break. The Lakers were 21st in pace last season, making them one of the slowest teams, while Westbrook’s Wizards were the fastest. Westbrook plays every possession as if he is trying to outrun a vengeful lightning bolt, and that’s if he’s not the lightning bolt himself. That will help the Lakers add a new dimension to their offense: Westbrook and James are among the best fast-break players the league has seen.Westbrook’s days of averaging a triple-double are most likely behind him. Davis and James are exceptional rebounders and playmakers, leaving less for Westbrook to put on his plate, at least statistically. But Westbrook’s addition to the Lakers, as well as that of Dwight Howard and Anthony, makes this one of the most intriguing roster constructions in the last decade.But if Westbrook is unable to jell with his latest batch of star teammates, the Lakers may end up being an ill-fitting, must-watch mess. More

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    N.B.A. All-Stars Set a Painful Record for Missing Playoff Games

    Injury woes are not new, but they have been acute during the playoffs. Never before have eight All-Stars missed at least one postseason game in the same year.Sprained knees. Strained hamstrings. Twisted ankles. Shattered hopes.The N.B.A. playoffs have turned into a battle of attrition as the league grapples with a growing list of injuries to many of its biggest stars. No less an eminence than LeBron James, whose Los Angeles Lakers made a hasty first-round exit after his All-Star teammate Anthony Davis injured his knee (and then his groin), weighed in on Wednesday, blaming the league’s compressed schedule. Regular-season games began in December after an abridged off-season.“They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season,” James wrote on Twitter. “I knew exactly what would happen.”It is worth noting that the league and its players’ union agreed on the schedule.But injuries were a problem for many N.B.A. teams even before the start of the playoffs — the Denver Nuggets, for example, were left without Jamal Murray, their starting point guard, when he sustained a season-ending knee injury in April — and a fresh batch of injuries in the postseason has only amplified the issue. In fact, with two-plus playoff rounds remaining, the N.B.A. has already set an ignominious record: eight All-Stars (and counting, perhaps) have missed at least one postseason game.Here is a look at those players, and how their injuries and absences have affected their teams:Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles ClippersKawhi Leonard sat during the end of Game 4 against the Utah Jazz on Monday with knee soreness.Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesInjury: Leonard was huge for the Clippers on Monday in Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinal series against the Utah Jazz, finishing with 31 points and 7 rebounds in a win that evened the best-of-seven series at two games apiece. But the Clippers’ victory proved costly: Leonard sprained his right knee.Impact: Leonard was expected to miss Game 5 on Wednesday night, and the Clippers did not offer a timetable for his return. One of the top two-way players in the league, Leonard is vital to the Clippers’ championship hopes. There is also a sense of urgency for the franchise, which has never made a conference final and had been banking on the star-studded pairing of Leonard and Paul George to help deliver its first title: Leonard can opt for free agency after the season. Another playoff disappointment could figure in his decision. The Clippers would prefer that they not have to find out.Anthony Davis, Los Angeles LakersAnthony Davis’s injuries hurt the Lakers’ quest to defend their championship this season.Harry How/Getty ImagesInjury: After helping the Lakers win it all last season, Davis stumbled through the 2020-21 regular season, missing about two months with a calf strain. It only got worse for him in the Lakers’ first-round series with the Phoenix Suns, as he injured his knee and his groin.Impact: Despite spraining his left knee in Game 3 against the Suns, Davis played through pain to deliver a win. But he strained his groin in Game 4, then missed Game 5. He limped through the early stages of Game 6 before heading to the locker room in pain, and the Lakers lost the game and the series without him. The Lakers had hoped to mount a stronger title defense. Davis blamed himself. “We just couldn’t stay healthy,” he said. “A lot of that is on me.James Harden, Brooklyn NetsHarden played with a strained hamstring in Game 5 against the Bucks. He scored just 5 points.Adam Hunger/Associated PressInjury: It took less than a minute for Harden, holding his hamstring, to leave Game 1 of the Nets’ second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Harden missed the next three games before making a last-second decision to play in Game 5 Tuesday night. Strain to the same hamstring caused Harden to miss most of the last month of the regular season.Impact: The Nets’ top three stars — Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — played only eight games together during the regular season. Harden is one of the most productive scorers in N.B.A. history, and he was largely ineffective in his return on Tuesday night in Brooklyn, with just 5 points and one made field goal. Without Harden’s shooting and playmaking ability, and combined with the loss of Irving, the Nets’ path to a championship becomes much more difficult. Harden is, however, expected to play in Game 6 on Thursday in Milwaukee.Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn NetsKyrie Irving landed on another player’s foot and sprained his ankle.Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesInjury: During the second quarter of Game 4 against the Bucks, Irving sprained his right ankle when he landed on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s right foot after a layup. He is out indefinitely.Impact: Losing just Irving, given the Nets’ depth, probably would be a storm the team could weather. But his loss combined with Harden’s problematic hamstring, makes the Nets much more vulnerable. It puts pressure on Durant to produce historic numbers like he did in Game 5 against the Bucks (49 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists). But even without Irving, the Nets, as they showed Tuesday night, may be deep enough to get by without him if role players like Jeff Green continue to show up.Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ersEmbiid has missed just one game with a small lateral meniscus tear, but the injury has also negatively affected him when he’s played.Tim Nwachukwu/Getty ImagesInjury: Sidelined with a left knee bone bruise for a couple of weeks during the regular season, Embiid sustained a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee in the 76ers’ first-round series with the Washington Wizards.Impact: Despite the apparent severity of his injury, Embiid has been out only once — Game 5 against the Wizards, which the 76ers won to close the series. He was terrific at the start of their conference semifinal series with the Atlanta Hawks, averaging 35.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game as the 76ers took a 2-1 series lead.He struggled, though, in a Game 4 loss, shooting 4 of 20 from the field, including 0 for 12 in the second half. He acknowledged afterward that his knee was bothering him. “As far as being 100 percent, I don’t think that’s going to happen until the year is actually over,” Embiid told reporters. “I just got to go out and manage it.”Donovan Mitchell, Utah JazzUtah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) is helped off the court after injuring his ankle.Russell Isabella/USA Today Sports, via ReutersInjury: Mitchell missed the last 16 regular-season games and Utah’s playoff opener against the Memphis Grizzlies because of a sprained right ankle.Impact: The Jazz lost their first playoff game against Memphis without Mitchell. After Mitchell returned for Game 2, the Jazz dominated the series. Mitchell averaged 28.5 points and 5.8 assists in four games on 45 percent shooting. In Utah’s second-round match up against the Clippers, Mitchell has been even more dominant, with 37.3 points a game on 46.8 percent shooting through the first four games.Mike Conley, Utah JazzMike Conley’s absence leaves the Jazz without one of their key scorers beyond Donovan Mitchell.Rick Bowmer/Associated PressInjury: Conley has not played in Utah’s semifinal series against the Clippers because of a right hamstring strain. He also missed 20 games during the regular season because of injuries or rest related to that hamstring.Impact: Conley, when healthy, is the starting point guard for the Jazz. On a team that sometimes is too reliant on Mitchell to make plays, Conley is another player who can help break down defenses to take the pressure off Mitchell. During the regular season, Conley made his first All-Star appearance and averaged 16.2 points and 6 assists per game on 44.4 percent shooting, placing him firmly in the upper tier of N.B.A. guards.Jaylen Brown, Boston CelticsBrown had season-ending wrist surgery in May.Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty ImagesInjury: The Celtics announced on May 10 that Brown would miss the end of the regular season and the entire postseason because of a torn ligament in his left wrist.Impact: Brown established himself as a star this season, with averages of 24.7 points and 6 rebounds per game. He also made his first All-Star team. But his presence likely would not have made much of a difference in the playoffs, where the Celtics lost to the heavily favored Nets in the first round in five games. More

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    Even LeBron James Isn’t Eternal

    At 36, with his team’s future in doubt, James faces basketball mortality.His season was not finished — not yet, anyway — when LeBron James grabbed a seat at the far end of the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench on Tuesday night in Phoenix. He would occasionally approach a teammate or an assistant so that he could lean in close for a one-sided conversation. But he otherwise seemed resigned to the reality of the situation.The Lakers were getting routed by the Suns in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series, and James — such an indomitable force throughout his 18-year-old career, but now facing an early summer — was oddly powerless to stop it.Perhaps there was hope, in some distant corner of Lakerland, that he could muster more of his familiar magic to help the team avoid elimination two days later in Los Angeles. Instead, the Lakers were bound for more of the same: more offensive fireworks from the Suns, more disappointment, more questions about their future.The surprise was not so much that the second-seeded Suns won the best-of-seven series, clinching a trip to the Western Conference semifinals with their 113-100 victory in Game 6 on Thursday night. Rather, it was the way in which they did it — by winning the final two games of the series against the defending N.B.A. champions so convincingly.For the Lakers, it was a gloomy coda to their brief reign atop the league.“It’s been draining,” James said, referring to the past 18 months. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally draining.”Devin Booker of the Suns is one of the younger players threatening James’s throne.Harry How/Getty ImagesBy any objective measure, the Lakers faced their share of obstacles. Their run to last season’s championship came in the middle of a pandemic and stretched into October. The 2020-21 season started about two months later. Despite the short break, the Lakers got off to a strong start, going 21-6 before injuries slowed them down. They eventually slipped into the playoffs as a No. 7 seed, and only after playing their way in.“I just think the whole thing was a challenge, to play all the way into October and start the season as quickly as we did,” Coach Frank Vogel said. “It was going to be an uphill battle.”There is a big “what if,” of course: What if Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ All-Star power forward, had remained healthy against the Suns? The Lakers had a 2-1 series lead when Davis strained his groin in Game 4. Sensing weakness, the Suns pounced to even the series. Davis was in street clothes for Game 5, which the Suns won by 30 points, and then spent only 5 minutes 25 seconds on the court in Game 6 before he left in pain, done for the night and for the season.Davis is extraordinarily talented and helped fuel the Lakers’ championship, but nobody is accusing him of being the sturdiest player in the league. Prone to injuries for much of his career, he missed about two months this season with a calf strain, and his problems in the playoffs cost the Lakers at the worst time.“We had the pieces,” Davis said. “We just couldn’t stay healthy. A lot of that is on me.”James, 36, was not immune to injury, either. He sprained his right ankle in March and missed a total of 26 games before the playoffs. On Thursday, he tried to tow the Lakers back from a 29-point deficit, helping cut it to 10 in the fourth quarter. He finished with 29 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, but acknowledged that his ankle was still bothering him. He said he was looking forward to a full off-season.“It’s going to work wonders for me,” he said, indicating that he would not play in the Olympics.The brightest star in the series was the Suns’ Devin Booker, who, at 24, has officially arrived as one of the league’s premier players. On Thursday, he scored 47 points and shot 8 of 10 from beyond the 3-point line. When James made his first trip to the playoffs, with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2006, Booker was 9 years old. After Thursday’s game, James autographed his jersey and gave it to him.“I love everything about D-Book,” James said. “He continues to make the jump.”While the Suns go about preparing for the Denver Nuggets in the next round, the Lakers will begin the hard work of addressing where they go from here.Just five players — James, Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Marc Gasol — are under contract for next season, and Montrezl Harrell has a player option. (In a contractual quirk, the Lakers also owe Luol Deng, who last played for the Lakers in 2017, $5 million.) The big earners, though, are James, Davis and Caldwell-Pope, who, combined, are due nearly $90 million — a sum that, because of salary-cap restrictions, will limit the Lakers’ ability to make significant moves in free agency. The Lakers are unlikely to undergo any extreme makeovers. And they could wind up paying a hefty luxury tax if they re-sign some of their own free agents.James said he had faith in Rob Pelinka, the team’s general manager.“I will have some input,” James said, “but he always asks my input.”No one is about to feel sorry for the Lakers. Davis forced his way to Los Angeles. James is starring in a major motion picture this summer. And the Lakers, with all the inherent advantages as a big-market franchise, won it all last fall. So spare the tears.But the road does seem a bit uncertain for them, and for James in particular. One of the game’s great competitors, he was the sixth-oldest player in the league this season. (Worth noting: The two oldest players, Udonis Haslem and Anderson Varejao, combined to appear in six games and score 17 points.) In two of the last three seasons, James sustained serious injuries after avoiding them for most of his career. No athlete is immortal.Now James is fighting the inevitable effects of age while trying to ward off a group of up-and-comers like Booker — “Young guns,” James called them — who are determined to seize their rightful share of the stage. Perhaps they already have. James was asked whether their presence would motivate him to come back stronger.“I don’t need motivation from anybody in this league,” he said. “I motivate myself.” More

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    Lakers Eliminated from Playoffs With Game 6 Loss to Suns

    The Los Angeles Lakers, the defending N.B.A. champions led by LeBron James, struggled with injuries all season.The Los Angeles Lakers’ brief reign is over.The Phoenix Suns eliminated the Lakers from the N.B.A. playoffs on Thursday night with a 113-100 victory in Game 6 of their first-round series, ending LeBron James’s hopes of hauling the Lakers to back-to-back championships.It is the first time that James, 36, has exited the playoffs in the first round — and it was a young, up-and-coming team that hastened his departure.The second-seeded Suns, who are making their first postseason appearance since 2010, leaned on the inside-outside combination of Devin Booker, 24, and Deandre Ayton, 22, throughout the series.“I just know they wanted to be in these types of games,” Monty Williams, the Suns’ coach, said before Thursday’s game. “And I think they haven’t run from the moment, run from situations.”Both players, Williams said, got a taste of the spotlight last season, when the Suns won eight straight games in the league’s bubble — a run that left Phoenix short of qualifying for the postseason but made the team’s young core eager to achieve more.The Suns will now face the Denver Nuggets in the conference semifinals. The Nuggets eliminated the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday.Devin Booker led the suns with 47 points.Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports, via ReutersThe Lakers, who were hindered by injuries throughout the regular season, seemed to come unglued against the Suns after Anthony Davis, their All-Star power forward, strained his groin before halftime of Game 4. The Suns went on to win that game and then crushed the Lakers on Tuesday in Game 5 to seize momentum.Frank Vogel, the Lakers’ coach, said before Thursday’s game that Davis “very much” wanted to play. Davis tried: He was in the starting lineup but was running gingerly from the tip and appeared to aggravate his injury while trying to block one of Booker’s layups early in the first quarter. Davis promptly went to the bench and never returned to the game.The Suns, meanwhile, were volcanic, shooting 10 of 13 from beyond the 3-point line in the first quarter en route to a 22-point lead heading into the second. Booker finished with 47 points and shot 8 of 10 from 3-point range.Since joining the Lakers before the start of the 2018-19 season, James has experienced highs and lows. His first season with the team unraveled when he injured his groin on Christmas Day, and the Lakers missed the playoffs. Last season, he engineered a resurgence, joining Davis to lead the Lakers to their 17th championship. For James, the run was a crowning achievement: his first title with the Lakers, and his fourth overall with three teams.As expected, the Lakers entered this season with big goals but struggled. After a strong start that seemed to position him as a candidate to win his fifth N.B.A. Most Valuable Player Award (and his first since 2013), James missed a total of 26 games after he sprained his ankle in March. And Davis, who has been hobbled by injuries throughout his career, was sidelined for about two months with a calf strain.The result was that the Lakers, who had been considered among the preseason favorites to win another title, were seldom whole, and they limped into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the West.Still, the Lakers were not an ideal first-round matchup for the Suns — and the task became even more challenging for Phoenix when Chris Paul, the team’s starting point guard and veteran leader, injured his right shoulder in the first game of the series. Paul played through the pain, though, and was terrific in Phoenix’s Game 4 win, a turning point for a franchise on the rise. More

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    N.B.A. Playoffs: Anthony Davis Leads Lakers Past the Suns

    In Los Angeles, a star absorbs a few blows as he delivers shot after shot, leading the Lakers past the Suns.LOS ANGELES — It was not an especially pleasant night of basketball for Anthony Davis. Productive? Yes. Pleasant? No.The Lakers on Thursday were playing in front of a home playoff crowd for the first time since 2013, and Davis christened the festivities by picking up his first foul 15 seconds into the game. A few minutes later, his face got in the way of one of Deandre Ayton’s elbows.In the second quarter, Davis sprinted the length of the court to chase down Devin Booker and swat away his layup — only to wrench his left knee. Davis would later describe it as “hyperextended.” Whatever the official diagnosis, he used a heat wrap at halftime and then removed it so that he could continue with his now-familiar business of torching the Phoenix Suns.Davis, the Lakers’ All-Star power forward, has not been immune to injury. He missed about two months this season with a calf strain, and the Lakers have little chance of defending their N.B.A. championship without him. On Thursday, he was hobbling throughout the second half of the Lakers’ 109-95 win over the Suns in Game 3 of their first-round series, and Frank Vogel, the Lakers’ coach, kept turning to the members of his medical staff: Were they sure this was such a good idea?Davis after he took an elbow to the face from Deandre Ayton.Sean M. Haffey/Getty ImagesHis troubles mounted when he tried to block a Devin Booker shot.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images“Maybe we should get him out,” Vogel recalled telling them. “And they’re saying, ‘He’s good to go. He’s safe. It’s just about playing through pain.’”Davis wound up collecting 34 points and 11 rebounds to help the Lakers take a 2-1 series lead over Phoenix ahead of Game 4 on Sunday afternoon, and the Suns — who earned the No. 2 seed with an enormously successful regular season — seem in danger of coming unglued. Chris Paul’s shoulder injury has rendered him a sad shadow of himself. His teammates are being thwarted by the Lakers’ defense, and their frustration is starting to show.Players from both teams spent the late stages of Thursday’s game barking at each other.“That’s playoff basketball,” Davis said. “Guys are going to chirp. Guys are going to talk.”But while the Lakers seemed to consume all the theatrics as fuel — Dennis Schröder, for example, did a series of push-ups after Booker knocked him to the court in the final minute — the Suns lost their composure. Booker was ejected for his flagrant foul on Schröder — Davis called it a “dirty play” — and the Suns’ Jae Crowder soon got tossed, too.The Lakers, of course, are only seven months removed from last season’s title run in the bubble, and few pundits were dismissing them ahead of their series with the Suns. Sure, they might have limped into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed after a disjointed season that was marred by injuries. But they still employ two of the best players on the planet. So what if LeBron James missed 26 games down the stretch because of a sprained ankle? So what if their lineup was seldom whole? So what if they lost 9 of 15 games in April?The doubts, murmurs and questions crept in, though, after their Game 1 loss in Phoenix. Davis, after being outplayed by Ayton, took the blame and vowed to be better. Before Game 2, he seemed uniquely determined to his teammates: quiet in a fearsome way. He delivered, scoring 34 points to help tie the series.On Thursday, the Lakers were leading by 3 at halftime when Davis (and James) went to work. After James scored the first two baskets of the third quarter by attacking creases in the lane, he fed Davis for a dunk. The Suns immediately called a timeout, but the Lakers’ run had the feel of storm clouds forming on the horizon.“Those two guys really reversed the whole course of the game,” Vogel said of Davis and James.Coming out of the timeout, Davis kept calling for the ball, and scoring, and limping, and rebounding, and scoring some more. He corralled a lob for another dunk. He faced up against Ayton and lofted a leaner over him. Davis scored 18 points in the third quarter alone, and some close observers of the Lakers were calling it the team’s best stretch of basketball of the season.“He’s just ultra-aggressive right now,” James said of Davis, adding: “When he’s aggressive, we’re all aggressive.”Jae Crowder and the Suns lost their cool, and LeBron James and the Lakers left with a 2-1 lead in the series.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated PressEven Davis’s mistakes came with thunderous flair. After cutting through the lane and catching a pass from James, Davis rose for an attempted dunk that caromed off the back of the rim with such force that the ball nearly grazed the video screen hanging above center court. Later, he lost one of his sneakers while drawing a foul. He otherwise remained intact.“Just a gutsy, tough performance from a great player,” Vogel said, “and we needed it.”Before joining the Lakers last season, Davis had been to the playoffs only twice, without ever taking his team past the second round. He was a great player — dominant, even — but he was not necessarily known as a winner, and his exit from New Orleans was a messy one.Davis went a long way toward repairing his reputation in the bubble, winning a championship with James while making important shots along the way. Now, he appears to be savoring the chance to make another title run, this time in arenas that are beginning to fill with fans.“We’re finding our groove at the right time,” he said. More

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    The Lakers Weren’t Ready for the Moment. Devin Booker Was.

    Booker, the Phoenix Suns’ All-Star guard, is already showing the poise and determination of a playoff regular in his first postseason.The roots of everything that the Suns are now — a winning team, a franchise with championship hopes — date to 2015, when Phoenix made Devin Booker the 13th overall pick of the N.B.A. draft. For his first couple of seasons in Phoenix, he played in relative anonymity. The Suns were a terrible team. The closest Booker got to the playoffs was watching other players celebrate big wins on television.Still, he kept refining his craft as change swirled around him. The franchise kept tinkering and building. By the start of last season, none of the teammates he had as a rookie remained on the roster. He made his first All-Star team, then helped the Suns close out their season a few months later with eight straight wins in the bubble environment at Walt Disney World — a run that cemented their identity as a young, tough-minded team but was not enough to make the playoffs.Booker had to wait a little longer for his first trip to the postseason. On Sunday afternoon, the Suns opened the doors of their arena to nearly 12,000 fans for Game 1 of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Suns were among the teams that were able to increase their arena capacity for the start of the playoffs, and Coach Monty Williams said he found it jarring in the best way possible.“When I came out and saw that many people and heard the noise, I was like, ‘Holy smokes, this is pretty cool,’ ” he said. “I had to get myself under control emotionally because I hadn’t been in that environment in a long time.”If everything about the experience was new to Booker, he did a good job of hiding it in the Suns’ 99-90 win. He was dominant in an almost effortless way, outshining the title-tested luminaries with whom he shared the court. Booker has been on the cusp of emerging as one of the league’s brightest young stars for several years, but perhaps he needed to lead the Suns to a playoff win — against the Lakers, no less — to solidify his arrival.“Honestly,” he said, “it’s a little different. The intensity is different. The physicality is different.”It was only one game, of course, and it is worth remembering that the Lakers lost a pair of playoff series openers — to the Trail Blazers in the first round and to the Rockets in the conference semifinals — before crushing both Portland and Houston on their march to last season’s finals victory.But the big stage did not seem to affect the 24-year-old Booker. If anything, he embraced it.In the game’s early stages, he quickly passed out of a double-team, a decision that led to an open shot for a teammate. It was a small but significant moment: Booker seemed determined not to force much of anything. Instead, he was going to trust his teammates and bank on the slow, methodical process that had put the Suns in this position in the first place, as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.Suns Coach Monty Williams, middle, talked with Booker and forward Jae Crowder during the second half.Christian Petersen/Getty Images“Book has this reputation as a scorer, but he’s an unbelievably good passer,” Williams said, adding: “When he sees the double-team, he gets out of it. That’s who he is, and he probably doesn’t get enough credit for his willingness to pass.”Make no mistake: Booker scored, too. He spun through small crowds of defenders. He pulled up from the 3-point line. He finished with a game-high 34 points while shooting 13 of 26 from the field. He also had 8 assists and 7 rebounds, stamping the playoffs with his presence.The only player who may have been more impressive was his teammate, Deandre Ayton, the third-year center and 2018 No. 1 overall pick. He had 21 points and 16 rebounds while defending (and outplaying) the Lakers’ Anthony Davis, who was limited to 13 points and 7 rebounds. Davis took the blame for the Lakers’ loss. Booker described the 22-year-old Ayton’s performance as “next level.”“You could see it in his face pregame, that he was ready to go,” Booker said.There is an enormous disparity in experience in this best-of-seven series, and for one game, at least, it did not matter. While it was postseason game No. 1 for Booker and Ayton, it was postseason game No. 261 for the Lakers’ LeBron James, who first went to the playoffs when Booker was in the fourth grade.James, who sprained his ankle in March and wound up missing 26 games, had a muted opener against the Suns, scoring 18 points and attempting just 13 field goals. As a team, the Lakers shot poorly from the 3-point line and were outrebounded.It was an afternoon that, in some ways, typified their season. Because of injuries, the Lakers have seldom been whole. The defending champions, they limped into the playoffs as the conference’s No. 7 seed. Still, their struggles did not seem to matter to the oddsmakers who, before the start of the series, were favoring them to eliminate the Suns. Respect is hard won.Lebron James had 18 points in the loss.Ross D. Franklin/Associated PressOn Sunday, bodies collided and tempers flared. The Suns’ Chris Paul, one of the few players on the team with plentiful postseason experience, injured his right shoulder but played through apparent pain. (Paul is expected to play in Game 2 on Tuesday night.) Cameron Payne, his teammate, was ejected for throwing an elbow — and the ball — at the Lakers’ Alex Caruso.Aside from that kerfuffle, however, the Suns kept their composure. They never trailed in the second half, a surprisingly mature effort. Williams often tells his players that there are moments when “preparation meets opportunity,” and Booker seized his own. In fact, he had been preparing for Sunday’s game for years.He could have cited the summer mornings when he was a teenager and he would run sprints while wearing a weighted vest under the watchful and demanding eye of his father, Melvin, a former N.B.A. player. Or the YouTube videos of stars that he would parse. Or his first few seasons in Phoenix, which were not much fun. The past, though, was prelude. Booker said he could sense “something inside” of him before Sunday’s game. It was hard to define.“I was ready for it,” he said. More