LOS ANGELES – Boxing legend Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” After landing the most rigorous road of his NBA playoff career, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James echoed the words of the fellow champion.
“It was good to get that first punch,” said James following the Lakers’ 103-100 win over the Golden State Warriors in a play-in game for the Western Conference’s seventh playoff seed on Wednesday. “Mike Tyson always said everybody has a plan until you get in the ring and get punched. So, we did that and it felt good. It felt great.”
The Lakers return to the postseason as the reigning NBA champions, but several elite teams surely believe they have more than a puncher’s chance of knocking King James and the Lakers out of the playoffs.
The Lakers will face NBA All-Stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker and the second-seeded Phoenix Suns in the first round. As a seventh seed, this will be the toughest playoff road of James’ illustrious career, as he’s never been worse than a 4-seed nor has he ever began the postseason without home-court advantage. Even so, a longtime NBA scout still believes the Lakers can repeat despite the challenges ahead.
“You know why? They got the monster in LeBron,” the scout said. “You saw what he did against the Warriors. I’d never bet against that guy.”
The Lakers’ biggest challenge during the 2020-21 NBA season has been injuries. Keep in mind that the 2020 NBA champs had just 73 days off between last season and this season.
This season, James missed 27 games, most notably to an ankle injury, and played in a career-low 45 regular-season games. Fellow NBA All-Star forward Anthony Davis missed 36 games this season and was hampered by a serious calf injury. Starting point guard Dennis Schroder also missed 11 games due to injury and health and safety protocol reasons. The Lakers finished the regular season with a 42-30 record that led to the play-in situation against the Warriors.
“It’s been a challenge for sure the entire season and the shortened offseason,” Davis said. “The whole COVID thing where we have guys missing, to me and Bron’s injuries where we’re missing games for a long period of time. It’s just been a lot for us, but at the end of the day we make no excuses for ourselves. We don’t feel sorry for ourselves because no one else does.
“It just makes it all worth it in the end. This is going to be a challenge. We accept the challenge, and we embrace it. It’s going to be a fun one. And the more we embrace it and accept that we’re in this position, the easier it will be for us.”
One longtime NBA scout told that today’s Lakers are not as good as the 2020 NBA champions that won in the bubble. The scout said the Lakers will miss the leadership, experience and mental toughness of veteran point guard Rajon Rondo, who is now with the LA Clippers, and the effectiveness and fit at the center position of Dwight Howard, who is now with the Philadelphia 76ers. The scout added that the Lakers haven’t figured out how to get the best out of Montrezl Harrell and will need more production and fire from Davis all around. Perhaps having Davis play more center is the answer, as he made 9 of 13 shots against the Warriors at that position after missing all seven shots while playing alongside Andre Drummond.
Like a champion boxer, the Lakers had outstanding defense that saved them against the Warriors. The NBA scout said the Lakers’ defense is their biggest key to repeating as champs.
The Lakers, who were the No. 2-ranked defense in the NBA this season, limited Golden State to 21 points in the fourth quarter. The Warriors also were doomed by 20 turnovers, including six apiece by both Steph Curry and Draymond Green.
“The first half it was very lackadaisical and it was not Lakers basketball or our type of defense,” Davis said. “But, we picked it up in the second half. We just kept going and kept playing.”
Davis and the Lakers better come in ready to fight the young Suns.
The Suns are the No. 2 seed, have the National Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year in Monty Williams on the sideline, a superstar backcourt of Paul and Booker, budding star center Deandre Ayton and home-court advantage in an arena that hasn’t hosted a playoff game since 2010. Even so, the Lakers opened as a -300 favorite at Caesars William Hill over the Suns (+240). According to ESPN Stats & Information, it’s the first time in more than 30 years that a 7-seed is favored over a 2-seed. The Suns won the season series against the Lakers 2-1, but James and Davis did not play together in any of those contests. The Suns host the Lakers in Phoenix in Game 1 Sunday on ABC at 3:30 p.m. ET. The Lakers will have three days between games while the Suns have been off since May 16.
“They’re good. CP and Book are the head of the snake,” said Davis, who scored 42 points against Phoenix on May 9. “Their role players are Jae Crowder, who has played well for them. Big fella Ayton has played well for them. They got a good team. All those guys are playing well.”
James will be playing against his good friend Paul for the first time in the postseason. James owns a 15-13 edge in regular-season games against Paul.
“It’s going to be pretty cool to be on the floor and compete against one of the most feared competitors that this game has had over [Paul’s] career. I look forward to the matchup,” James said.
The Lakers’ road to the 2020 NBA championship in the bubble was a comfortable and short air-conditioned walk from the hotel to a practice gym in a convention center and about a 10-minute bus ride to the arena for games. Los Angeles didn’t compete against a team higher than a 3-seed in the postseason last year and benefitted from several stars having key injuries along the way. Now, the Lakers are trying to become the first-ever NBA team to win the title from the seventh seed.
“We had to find our swag,” Davis said. “We are the defending champs, but nothing is going to be easy for us because we are the defending champs. Nothing is going to be easy for us because we do have a target on our backs and every team wants to beat us. We got to know that and we need to come out a lot better than we did [against Golden State] in that playoff series against Phoenix.”
The talented Western Conference has ready and rested teams hoping to take advantage of the Lakers’ struggles and injury woes. The Suns, top-seeded Utah Jazz, the Denver Nuggets and Clippers all are championship-caliber teams in the West capable of beating the Lakers.
Lakers guard Wesley Matthews says he and his teammates aren’t talking about the long odds that come with their lower seeding.
“At the end of the day, we just need to be playing our best basketball. Wherever we fell is where we fell in the standings,” Matthews said. “But we have a job to do every single night. We don’t view ourselves as a seventh seed.”
The biggest strength for the Lakers is their star, James, who certainly can pack a punch. James reminded the basketball world of that after he nailed a late 3-pointer to seal the win for the Lakers on Wednesday night against the Warriors. And if James can lead the Lakers through this treacherous road to a fifth NBA championship from the seventh seed, this will be the greatest knockout punch of his career.
“We were able to bring the fight to [Golden State],” James said. “We are looking forward to what is going to be in store in the postseason. And we got one postseason game under our belt. We look forward to the next one.”