It ended here.
The Lakers’ attempt to win their 18th title ended far short of their goal, the team being eliminated from all postseason play following a 121-110 loss to the Suns and the San Antonio Spurs win in Denver Tuesday night.
But maybe it really ended Friday in Los Angeles, when in a last gasp the Lakers played an injured LeBron James and a recovering Anthony Davis. Or maybe it ended the Sunday before that when the Lakers blew a 20-point lead on the same night James sprained his left ankle.
Or, maybe it was all over when James’ left knee couldn’t be counted on. Or maybe when Davis sprained his foot when he stepped on Rudy Gobert’s. Or when he injured his knee in Minnesota. Or when the team was run over by a COVID-19 outbreak in December or when they got into a shoving match. Or when they traded three players and a first-round pick for Russell Westbrook.
The actual moment when this Lakers’ season no longer became viable can and will be discussed. The admirable, albeit delusional, attempts to try and talk this team into a contender, though, no longer need to be had.
“Our backs are against the wall,” Frank Vogel said pregame. “It’s not over for us.”
Forty-eight minutes later, the wall won.
Westbrook scored 28, Davis had 21 and Austin Reaves scored 18. Devin Booker led the Suns, Phoenix effectively ending the Lakers’ season two years in a row after eliminating them in the first round of last year’s playoffs.
Entering the game with the first-place Suns without James, the Lakers faced elimination with a loss and a Spurs win. And by the time they took the floor for pregame warm-ups, San Antonio already had a double-digit lead.
James missed his second-straight with his sore left ankle, one more injury to punctuate a season with so many of them. Now the question becomes if and when the Lakers will see James on the court again.
James, who is currently the NBA’s scoring leader, cannot qualify as the league’s scoring leader unless he plays in 70 percent of his team’s games. He’s currently two shy of that mark.
Players can still qualify as the NBA’s scoring leader if they’re point total divided by the minimum-game requirement still leads the NBA. James’ 1,695 points this season divided by the requirement would have him third on the scoring list behind Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It’s a consolation prize in every sense, a team that entered the season with championship hopes and a name-bran roster full of former All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers. The Lakers, though, never forged any real cohesion. Amid injuries and losing combinations, Vogel sent out 39 different starting lineups.
The team never was more than three games above .500 all season. That happened on Dec. 15 when Reaves hit a game-winner against the Dallas Mavericks. The next day, the team fell into the depts of a COVID-19 outbreak – clearing the way for 24 different players to log minutes for the team this season.
The 25th – guard Kendrick Nunn – still hasn’t been officially ruled out for the year by the team despite playing zero minutes.
The second injury to Davis, against the Jazz right before the All-Star break, was too much for the Lakers to overcome. The team has won just four times since, needing James to score at least 50 in two of those games to get victories.
Still the Lakers had hoped that a chance still existed, that the team could win its way through the NBA’s play-in tournament and get into the playoffs. And if they peaked at the right time, the Lakers could still contend.
But that peak never came, the Lakers discovering new rock bottoms all through their schedule.
Needing wins and facing a brutal schedule down the stretch, the Lakers have lost seven games in a row. Tuesday, they played well enough for most of the first half before the Suns pulled away without much of a chase.
With 2:24 left and trailing by 16, the Lakers called timeout with their players gathering on the bench. Davis and Westbrook didn’t get back up, the clock left to rundown without the team’s best players on the floor.
It was the first public sign of concession. It was all over, the Lakers’ experiment this season officially a failure.