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The Lakers and LeBron James need to embrace load management
There was a time LeBron James could recover from a sprained ankle in five minutes. He was the ironman who never needed to prove it, who rested regularly, took two weeks off in the middle of a season (and then won a championship, it’s worth noting), and spends $1 million annually on body maintenance.
But age has caught up to him. Injuries, we learned last season when he played just 55 games, can now impact him in the long term and, as we learned Thursday, in the short term, too. In the Los Angeles Lakers’ Christmas day loss to the Clippers, James collided with Patrick Beverley and re-aggravated a groin injury that forced him to miss his first game of the season on Dec. 22.
But for some reason, the man who put load management on the map has rejected the philosophy at the moment he most needs it. You wonder if, now that he’s not invincible, he’s straining to prove to himself that he is.
To date, the most durable body in professional basketball has accumulated 47,282 minutes — 6,272 more than Michael Jordan played, and 1,361 from surpassing Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles in Minute 45,396. That figure doesn’t even factor in nine Finals runs.
It’s only natural for James, after 17 seasons, to feel the weight of being human. The sooner he accepts he is, the better for him and the Lakers.
It’s been reported James is likely to miss time after re-aggravating his groin. He should, despite the Lakers dropping four games in a row now, be patient in his return. The Lakers on the whole, despite participating in a proxy war over load management, should flip the switch and embrace it. A losing streak is the crisis you make it. One way to look at it: Even with the recent losses, they still have the West’s best record.
It’s odd to see the Lakers, who have hung 16 banners, go full throttle in the regular season, while the Clippers, who have winning personnel but a losing history, act like they’ve been there before.
Especially when you consider the Lakers’ personnel. On average, they are the NBA’s second-oldest team. James turns 35 in three days. Danny Green and JaVale McGee, who start, are 32 and 31 respectively. Rajon Rondo is 33. Dwight Howard is 34. And there’s no reason Anthony Davis, a big man with a complicated injury history, should be playing through right knee soreness right now.
The Lakers, despite losing to the Clippers on Wednesday, have made it clear they will be a tough out in April and May. They are developing good habits and displaying good on-court chemistry. They might be the NBA’s best team when all the dust settles, but in order to make it to June, they need to not beat themselves.
Draymond Green has the Rockets’ number
Opponents have tried to defend James Harden from in front and from behind. They’ve put their hands up and they’ve kept their hands behind their backs. They’ve tried box-and-ones and traps.
Harden has dismantled them all, but in a Christmas win, the Golden State Warriors may have discovered a new puzzle in the riddle of guarding Harden: success has less to do with who guards him and more to do with who guards everyone else.
And that’s where Draymond Green, the NBA’s best help defender, comes in. “Actions that are happening,” former Warriors defensive guru Ron Adams told Yahoo Sports before the start of the NBA Finals, "[Green] always seems to act rather than react."
That’s what Green did Wednesday against the Houston Rockets. The Warriors trapped Harden aggressively, sometimes from half-court, while Green played free safety, anticipating where Harden would pass the ball, cutting off angles and contesting shots.
The 8-24 Warriors plumbed from their institutional wisdom to pull off perhaps the most improbable win of Christmas night, even giving Russell Westbrook the treatment they gave Memphis’ Tony Allen in the 2014-15 playoffs: ignoring him on the perimeter and cutting off his driving angles. They bet — like they did before — that Westbrook couldn’t beat them, and they were right.
Harden finished with 24 points, the lowest total he’s been held to in a loss since opening night against the Milwaukee Bucks, and it took Westbrook, who missed all eight of his threes and flung himself into the walled-off paint, 32 shots to get 32 points.
In the final seconds of the Lakers’ loss to the Clippers, LeBron James pulled up for three and got swatted, improbably and obviously, by Patrick Beverley. Given that it was a game played in the NBA, the officials were spiritually obligated to review the play and found that, before the ball went out of bounds, it grazed James’ fingertips.
The Clippers locked up possession and the victory, and on a national stage, the replay system revealed another glaring flaw: it “corrects” calls that, in any other stage of the game, would go the other way, valuing 100 percent accuracy over the logic of the first 46 minutes of the game so much that, ironically, it felt inaccurate.
If you went Zapruder on every deflection in an NBA game, you’d find the ball almost always last touches the finger or fingertip or fingernail or micro-hair of the player who initially had it in his hands. It’s a wrongness we live with because the naked eye can’t capture it, and the game needs to function at a reasonable pace. Until, of course, it slows to a crawl in crunchtime.
The fact that the lens through which the rules are analyzed literally changes at the game’s most critical juncture is pretty inexplicable, and increasingly, I feel that the mistakes that are reversed are not worth the trouble of the mistakes it creates.
Please make this happen, NBA.
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