For a moment it felt like déjà vu at Scotiabank Arena.
After the Toronto Raptors had built a comfortable lead in Thursday’s matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers — notably the first and only time LeBron James played in Toronto this season— the King took to the court in the second quarter and went to work.
Within a handful of possessions, James had grabbed a few rebounds, set up his teammates, and rumbled his way through the Raptors defense for at least one imposing throwdown.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) March 15, 2019
LeBron James coming right down the middle pic.twitter.com/4DRjzRh0V7
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) March 15, 2019
Suddenly what had been an 11-point Raptors lead had been cut down to two and James was providing a flashback to a not-so-distant era when the four-time MVP seemed to particularly revel in sticking the dagger into the Raptors.
The building had a different name the last time James came into town and took over, but the feeling was just the same.
For the better part of his career, James owned Toronto’s home court, the Raptors merely his tenant as the greatest player of his generation has averaged 27.7 points, seven rebounds, and 7.7. assists in 53 career games versus the Raps — to say nothing of his playoff success against the organization he’s not-so-kindly seen to the door in each of the past three seasons.
So when James and his undermanned Lakers, who were missing a handful of key players to injury, were mounting a comeback there was an almost inherent sense of impending doom in the arena.
But then something unusual happened. James, who is on a minutes-restriction as the season winds down, was subbed out of the game with five minutes remaining in the half and the score 48-46.
Toronto immediately went on a 14-2 run, capped by a Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beating three-pointer to send the Raps into halftime with an 11-point lead once again. They didn’t look back, cruising to a 111-98 win.
“It’s challenging,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said of having to pull James during the second quarter, “because most likely if we leave him out there and push through it we’re right there still. It came back to bite us. [But] we have a game plan and we’re going to stick to it.”
That plan? Limit the chances of a serious injury to their lone star and, while the team won’t admit it, lose down the stretch.
At least they’re doing a good job of that.
The Lakers loss brings their record to just 2-8 in their last 10 — the team snapped a five-game losing streak earlier this week against the sad sack Chicago Bulls.
After the game, James sat in the visitors locker room at Scotiabank Arena, a black durag wrapped around his head and a Lakers T-shirt with the sleeves cut off clinging to his Herculean shoulders. He was resigned to his latest fate: The 31-37 Lakers won’t make the playoffs and have been a typical circus show — at times the laughing stock of the NBA as they’ve failed to deliver.
When asked about the challenge this season has clearly posed, James didn’t want to put fuel on the fire. “Every year is different,” he said, cutting a reporter’s question short with the GOAT-calibre non-answer.
James missed five weeks of action earlier this season to injury, incredibly the longest spell of a career that’s already seen him log more post-season minutes than any player in league history. Two weeks ago the Lakers announced that they would limit James’ playing time for the remainder of the season, aiming to play him no more than 32 minutes each game.
When the news was first revealed, word was that he’d be able to break that 32-minute mark if the game were close. He logged 31 minutes and 47 seconds on Thursday, if you want an indication of whether or not the Lakers felt they could pull out the win.
“It’s challenging for me mentally because I’m so accustomed to being out on the floor, especially when I’m healthy,” James said of having to sit out. “But it was a conversation between myself, my trainer, the coaching staff, and the front office, and this was the direction they wanted to go for the remainder of the season given the lack of success we’ve had with our ball club.”
His voice trailed off slightly, as if he couldn’t believe that this was the post-game conversation he’d be having less than a month before the start of the post-season.
“I trust the people in charge, and that’s what it is.”
That trust hasn’t been rewarded yet. While you can blame injuries — James, who finished with 29 points on 23 shots, certainly did when asked what went wrong for his team this season — the Lakers’ disappointing campaign can be explained by a series of misguided front office moves.
First, there was a sort of cockiness to their off-season approach, with GM Rob Pelinka and team president Magic Johnson sure the team would attract a second star — Paul George the popular choice — only to see it backfire when George re-signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The team let talented young forward Julius Randle walk in free agency and replaced him with Michael Beasley, who, after just 26 games with L.A. this season, is now playing in China.
They used their cap space to sign a series of uninspiring veterans — Beasley, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee — and, of course, allowed the Anthony Davis trade deadline drama to torpedo the second half of their season.
And so here we are. The Lakers are chasing the bottom of the standings, with a glum-looking James explaining to reporters why he’s being pulled from close games instead of helping his team win.
“I think everybody knew coming into this year that it was going to be challenging, even if we were all healthy and played all 82 games,” James said, adding that the various injuries have taken a toll on his team.
Of course, the Lakers still have LeBron, who signed a four-year deal last summer, meaning he has incentive to be patient as the team builds a contender around him. They still have cap room — enough to go after top free agents this summer (cue the conspirators who saw LeBron tell Leonard “We’ll be in touch” as the two left the court, sparking speculation on the far corners of the Internet).
“We have an opportunity to get better this summer through free agency,” James said, “and also through the draft.”
On a night where Magic Johnson took in the Duke-Syracuse game, where the Lakers President saw Zion Williamson return to action to score 29 points and grab 14 boards, and R.J. Barrett drop a cool 23 points, it’s clear where this franchise is at.
Right now, the Lakers are in limbo, playing out the regular season schedule, eying the draft lottery. It’s a position a James-led franchise hasn’t been in in 14 seasons, and for the first time since he entered the league, all he can do is watch.