LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers were in rare form shortly before the coronavirus pandemic stopped the NBA season, and they're determined to find it again inside the bubble.
The Lakers had just beaten the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks and the rival powerhouse Clippers in the previous week before the stoppage. James had played magnificently in both games, bolstering his MVP case and leading the Lakers into the stretch with ample reason to believe they could contend for a championship.
"To be able to have our team at the top of the Western Conference and playing the way that we were playing at that time, and the way I was playing, it was definitely a good feeling,” James said.
Four months after the world changed, the Lakers are back at work in Florida's mostly empty gyms. Almost nothing is familiar in these unprecedented circumstances, but James' determination to win a title — his fourth, Anthony Davis' first and the Lakers' 17th — still burns fiercely.
“Nothing is normal in 2020,” James said. “And who knows if it will ever go back to the way it was? But you make the adjustments and you figure it out along the way. That’s what life is all about.”
James had been dominant in nine games since the All-Star break, averaging 30.0 points, 9.4 assists and 8.2 rebounds. The NBA's assists leader has been an outstanding facilitator of the Lakers' offence ever since he arrived last season, and he will step back into that role when the Lakers go back to work next week, starting in a showdown with the Clippers next Thursday.
Davis has remained one of the game's best big men in his first season on the West Coast, averaging 26.4 points and 9.4 rebounds while blocking 2.4 shots per game and asserting his case as the best defensive player in the NBA.
The evident chemistry between Davis and James extends across the Lakers' roster, which appears to have suffered none of the potential problems of being a recently assembled superteam. Coach Frank Vogel says his players have returned to work smoothly with a renewed focus partly made possible by the absence of normal life.
"The whole bubble has been a little bit different from what we do, but a lot the same," Vogel said. “When you're focused on what you need to do, you make the adjustments. It will feel a little bit different, but I think once the ball goes up, we'll be locked in on what we normally do.”
Starting guard Avery Bradley opted out of the NBA restart. The Lakers then lost veteran backup point guard Rajon Rondo for at least six weeks when he broke his right thumb during an early practice inside the bubble. Los Angeles added veteran J.R. Smith to fill Bradley's roster spot, and the minutes of both absent players will be filled by a combination of new starter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Smith and Dion Waiters, who signed with the Lakers before the break, but hadn't played yet. Markieff Morris was a late arrival to the bubble, but he cleared quarantine and rejoined the Lakers on Thursday.
WHERE WE WERE
The Lakers were surging toward the No. 1 overall seed in the West at 49-14 with a 5 1/2-game lead over the Clippers atop the conference and a game in hand. They also had easily the best in-conference record, going 33-7 against West opponents when everybody else had lost at least 13 conference games.
Davis will be a free agent in the off-season , and he claims he hasn't thought about his future recently. Most observers expect Davis to stick with James and the Lakers next season, but the pandemic and the accompanying decline in league revenue could lead to a flat salary cap that would persuade Davis to sign a short-term deal instead of the long-term contract the Lakers might prefer. Either way, not many people expect Davis' last hurrah in purple and gold to be inside the bubble, even though it is a possibility.
The Lakers have been one of the NBA's best defensive teams all season, with only Toronto and Boston allowing fewer points per game, and Vogel expects that defence-first mentality to benefit his team during the restart. The menacing presence of Davis and Dwight Howard worked splendidly with LA's strong perimeter defence , although Bradley's absence could be felt at times on D. Rondo is one of the Lakers' worst defensive players, so the negative impact of his absence on offence could be buffered on the other end.
THE WEDDING SKIPPER
Caruso is taking his role so seriously that he skipped his sister's wedding last week to stay inside the bubble. The once-undrafted guard from Texas A&M had to play his way into the NBA through the G League, and he says his family supported his decision to stick with the Lakers, even though Vogel said they wouldn't have objected if he wanted to leave.
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Greg Beacham, The Associated Press