The Lakers were 11-7 this season with LeBron James on the court and Anthony Davis off of it. That record gave the Lakers confidence and optimism entering their Game 5 matchup with the Phoenix Suns.
In less than ten minutes it was gone.
Without Davis, the Lakers had no answers for the scorching Suns. They trailed by as many as 11 points early in the first quarter, and by 30 at halftime. At one point in the third quarter Phoenix led by 36 points.
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"We got our ass kicked. It's that simple," said James simply after the loss. "They got to whatever they wanted to get to in this game. We have to be better obviously if we want to force a Game 7.
For the first time in the James-Davis era, the Lakers find themselves down in a playoff series and facing elimination. Tuesday's 115-85 blowout loss in Game 5 puts the Lakers down 3-2 in their first-round playoff series against the Suns.
"We have to do what we can over the next 48 hours to get healthy and remain confident in the depth that we have. We have to take care of our home court," said Lakers' head coach Frank Vogel after the loss. "We will find out what we're made of and how bad we want this."
Vogel tried everything in Game 5. He started Markieff Morris at power forward instead of Kyle Kuzma, who started the second half of Game 4 after Davis left at the break with a strained left groin. Vogel started Marc Gasol and Alex Caruso in the second half of Game 5 in order to spread the floor. He put in Talen Horton-Tucker, Montrezl Harrell, Ben McLemore, heck, even Alfonzo McKinnie and veteran Jared Dudley appeared in the game for the first time all series. Nothing worked.
"Nothing worked in the first half," said Vogel about the lineup merry-go-round. "We're struggling to shoot the ball. Our shooters have to figure it out. We didn't defend well. We were looking for a spark from the other guys. That's what it was about."
Devin Booker looked locked in and focused from tip-off. LeBron did not, seemingly settling for three-pointers and jump shots all game long. By the time fans at home turned the channel to check on the Blazers and Nuggets game, which went into double-overtime, Booker had 18 first quarter points. The Lakers had 26 total and only 10 total points in the second quarter, their lowest scoring quarter all season.
Booker lived up to the billing in a must-win swing game at home for the Suns. The All-Star guard finished with a game-high 30 points. Cameron Payne chipped in 16 points off the bench in 18 minutes.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Booker said. “In studying film, I think I passed up a lot of quick ones...There's nobody that's scared of the moment. We're a confident team.”
The Lakers will need much more support from their supporting cast on Thursday if they want to have any chance of defending their title. Oh, and they need Anthony Davis to turn into the Wolverine as well.
An MRI on Monday revealed a Grade 1 left groin strain for Davis. Normal recovery time is 1-2 weeks. Davis is listed as day-to-day and would need to heal in just three days in order to suit up for Game 6 on Thursday.
"He went out and moved around," said Vogel about Davis' availability before the game. "I don't know how close he was, but he wasn't able to go."
James is entering Thursday's Game 6 elimination game with the mindset that his superstar teammate won't play.
"My mindset is that he's not going to be able to play in Game 6," said James. "If something changes we'll go from there, but I'm preparing as if he's not."
Despite having the second-best record in the NBA this season, and entering the first-round series as the No. 2 seed, the Suns were still the underdogs. Now, they are the overwhelming favorites to not just win the series, but advance to the Western Conference Finals.
The Suns strategy was simple in Game 5: double and triple-team LeBron and let anyone else on the Lakers beat them. Nobody stepped up to the plate. The other Lakers shot 6 for 27 from the perimeter (22 percent). LeBron had six threes in less than three quarters by himself. He finished with 24 points and seven assists. No other Laker came close.
"We're literally just not making shots," said James about the low scoring loss. "We're just not making many shots. But we're going to continue to trust the pass just like we've always done and shoot those shots with confidence in Game 6 on our home floor."
James even left the court with just over five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and headed back to the locker room. Many fans in the arena began to boo, believing it was poor sportsmanship on the part of the King. But Vogel squashed those beliefs and said he told James to head back early to get treatment in preparation for Game 6 back at Staples Center.
"LeBron went back to the locker room to start treatment to get ready for Game 6," said Vogel sternly.
"I was just in the back getting treatment getting ready for Game 6," said James when asked about the early exit.
It's clear that if Davis cannot go in Game 6 the Lakers will likely suffer the same fate as their 2020 NBA Finals opponent the Miami Heat will: they will start their summer vacations early with their season over.
If that outcome happens, it will be the first time the Lakers have not gone back-to-back as Champions after winning the championship the prior season since the 1985-86 season.