LeBron James struggles, tweaks injured foot as Lakers’ optimistic plan starts faltering

DENVER — Once upon a time LeBron James was the playoff Swiss army knife, putting cold water on your best player while controlling it on the other end.

We saw it against Derrick Rose well over a decade ago, and now Rose’s polar opposite was standing in front of James for long stretches, sapping whatever energy James had left as he tried to engineer an upset.

James nor the rest of the Lakers could shut off the charging Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, with Jamal Murray taking center stage in the fourth quarter on the way to a 108-103 win at Ball Arena.

James’ shooting has abandoned him this series, illustrating the fact he is, indeed, 38 years old and no longer operating with an endless reservoir of energy. Murray was unbothered by whatever defense the Lakers threw at him in the fourth, rebounding from a sluggish start to score 23 of his game-high 37 points.

Bubble Murray? Let’s call him May Murray now.

Conversely, James struggled.

He missed all six of his 3-point attempts, and while he admirably competed against Nikola Jokić, neither he nor Anthony Davis seemed to have enough left in the tank to fend off the Nuggets in the fourth.

He missed one of those forever young breakaway dunks in the first half, much to the delight of the Ball Arena crowd. And multiple times when the Lakers seemingly had the Nuggets on the ropes, leading by 11 early in the third quarter, they couldn’t quite put them away.

James called the rare mishap, “horrible.”

“Obviously, that sucks that that ball squirted out of my hand like that, whatever the case may be, maybe hit my knee or whatever, but unforced turnover by myself,” James said. “Those are momentum plays.”

And now it’s the Lakers on the ropes, losing two games in a row for the first time in over two months and being unable to steal a road game unlike against their first two playoff opponents.

“They’re like us, they’re undefeated at home. We knew it was going to be a challenge,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “A hard, hard one at that. And we said it before we even played one game, we got to buckle in and buckle up, buckle down and buckle up because we planned for this to be a long series.”

James stepped on the foot of Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon, perhaps tweaking the injured foot that caused him to miss a stretch of weeks during the regular season. Although he assured all he would play Saturday in Game 3, it reveals the fragility of this very optimistic plan for the Lakers.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James lays on the court after injuring his leg during the second half of Game 2 in the Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena in Denver on May 18, 2023. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James lays on the court after injuring his leg during the second half of Game 2 in the Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena in Denver on May 18, 2023. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Stars gotta be stars, and the Nuggets’ headliners stepped up yet again while the Lakers’ mainstays couldn’t keep pace. This Lakers thing only works if the stars are stars — and at a generational level, too. Having Rui Hachimura put together a sterling performance (made his first eight attempts) is amplified if James and Davis play up to their standards, when in reality he was delaying the inevitable Thursday.

The Lakers duo each played 40 minutes again, and with games coming every other day, including the travel between the two cities, you wonder if fatigue will play a factor — if it hasn’t already.

Davis hasn’t missed a game in two months — March 15 was his last game of inactivity — his longest stretch of playing consecutive games outside of the 2020 Orlando bubble where everyone had four months off before resuming play.

“I mean, if you’re not tired in the postseason — I mean, everybody’s tired,” James said.

Davis had his first playoff stinker in quite a while, perhaps somewhat predictable after his 40-point outburst in Game 1.

He scored 18 with 14 rebounds and 4 blocked shots but didn’t have nearly the effect on the game one has come to expect — although the Nuggets were hitting seemingly everything in the fourth, going on a streak of five straight 3-pointers that turned a 2-point Laker lead into a 12-point Nuggets lead in a span of four minutes.

Jokić had the luxury of being decoy-like during that time, with Murray, Bruce Brown and Michael Porter Jr. taking turns hitting adrenaline-fueled jumpers that had Brown chirping at the Lakers bench and Murray turning to ESPN announcer Mike Breen to mimic his famed “Bang!” call after his last triple at the 4:57 mark.

The two-time MVP compiled yet another triple-double with 23 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists while still ceding space to Murray, who continues to torch the Laker guards. Porter Jr. made four triples to score 16, and while he hasn’t exploded in this series, the Lakers have to beware he will in the next two games.

The Lakers aren’t bereft of confidence or options here. Austin Reaves again has teams ready to back up the Brinks truck in July with yet another strong showing, and in theory, D’Angelo Russell and Dennis Schröder are due for bounce-back performances, particularly getting back home for two games.

But the Jokić question is something the Lakers haven’t yet proven equipped to handle. Ham was a member of the 2004 Detroit Pistons team that upset the Lakers in the NBA Finals, with their strategy on the late-prime Shaquille O’Neal being to let him get his own and shut down everyone else.

“Yeah, we’ve got AD, but if you can call up Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace, Elden Campbell, tell them I’ve got a one-day or a series-long contract for them,” Ham said before the game. “That team, we had guys — no one could stop Shaq one-on-one, but we had some really formidable bodies that we could run at him.”

Even those generational defenders would shake their heads at Jokić’s mastery.

Put Davis on him, and while Davis can win his share of matchups, it limits his ability as a team defender.

Put James on him for long stretches, and you take the chance of James not having enough left in the tank to close. James missed a go-for-it-all 3-pointer in the final minute of Game 1, and resorted to taking far too many in Game 2.

For the playoffs, James is 1-for-20 on 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, and for the playoffs he’s shooting 23.3% from there.

“He was open, they’re playing off of him. He’s a highly capable 3-point shooter, he let it fly,” Ham said. “Again, like I always say, love and live in the paint. That allows some of these 3-point attempts to be that much more open and that much more in rhythm.”

It’s the Nuggets now in a rhythm, and although the “no respect card” Nuggets coach Michael Malone uses can feel like a cheap ploy, they’re using it as fuel to get closer and closer to the Finals.

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