Lakers are in dire straits after LeBron James’ injury scare leads to another meek loss

LOS ANGELES — The humming started in the hallway and picked up as Russell Westbrook got closer to the makeshift press conference room the Lakers use when they play the Clippers as the visiting team.

Despite the Lakers’ 114-101 loss Wednesday to the Clippers — their fourth consecutive loss to drop them to 2-9 — and LeBron James leaving the game in the fourth quarter with a leg injury, Westbrook entered the room loudly humming and with a smile .

His song choice, Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul,” is the same one he celebrated with on social media when he opted into his $47.1 million player option over the summer.

You won’t break my soul. You won’t break my soul. You won’t break my soul. You won’t break my soul.

Westbrook is a natural troll, particularly when dealing with the media. There obviously was an element of that to the spectacle. But it was interesting to see him act so cheerful — humming that song — considering the dire circumstances in which the Lakers currently find themselves.

By contrast, the Lakers’ start has clearly affected James, Anthony Davis and head coach Darvin Ham over the last couple of weeks. They have worn disappointment on their faces and in their press conference answers. Westbrook’s attitude has remain largely unfazed, win or loss.

But with how much adversity the Lakers have already faced this season, perhaps there is value in Westbrook’s undeterred perspective. The Lakers’ soul is certainly being tested right now. It’s not broken, but it’s reaching a breaking point. And they somehow, some way, have to try to rally — possibly without their best player and leader for an extended period of time.

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The Lakers lost their ninth straight game to their hallway rivals, falling behind 38-21 through one quarter, only to rally twice but still come up short. Worse, James exited the game with 5:41 remaining, grimacing and holding his left groin. The Lakers referred to it as left leg soreness, but James made it clear he felt the pain in his groin. He’ll undergo testing Thursday morning with the team’s medical staff.

“I feel good, besides the injury,” James said. “I’m going to get pictures of it and go from there. But I didn’t do anything extraneous on the play. Just when I landed, I felt a little spasm or strain in my groin. So immediately, I had to come out after that on the next play down when I went to the free-throw line.”

James clarified that the injury isn’t as serious as the torn left groin he suffered against the Golden State Warriors on Christmas during the 2018-19 season, which cost him 17 games.

If James is to miss any amount of time, the struggling Lakers are at risk of falling further behind in the playoff and Play-In Tournament race, decreasing their already minimal chances.

The Lakers are 31-54 (a .365 win percentage) without James over his five-season Lakers tenure. While that’s technically better than their current win percentage of .182, they have been even worse with James off the floor this season – as they have been throughout his tenure. Los Angeles is 3.1 points per 100 possessions worse with James on the bench (1.0 points per 100 possessions worse offensively and 2.2 points per 100 possessions worse defensively). James has missed one game this season: the Lakers’ 139-116 road loss to the Utah Jazz on Monday.

The timing of the injury is especially unfortunate for the Lakers, as they have an upcoming four-game homestead in which they should win at least three of the four games (Sacramento, Brooklyn, Detroit and San Antonio). The Lakers need to go 3-1, at a minimum, in that stretch to have any chance at salvaging their season.

To do so, they will need a lot more offensively from Davis and Westbrook, who are combining to make roughly $85 million this season. Davis said he’s ready to embrace the challenge of shouldering more than the load, be it scoring or finding shots for his teammates.

“For me, the mindset switches to just going out, being aggressive and trying to find ways to help the team win — whether it’s more shots or know it’s my job to make these guys better,” Davis said. “It’s my job anyway. But it’s heightened when someone like LeBron is out with everything he can do on the floor.”

Ham rejected the premise that just Davis and Westbrook, the team’s second- and third-leading scorers, respectively, need to step up. He believes winning without James will require a collective improvement and effort from the entire team.

“If (James) has to sit a game, a few games, whatever, guys just have to be ready to play and compete and hoop,” Ham said. “Can’t feel sorry for yourself, man. These games are coming at a rapid pace. For us to hang our heads or whatever, that can spill into more games being lost.”

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At this point, the Lakers are no longer just battling their opponents. They’re battling the weight of their own expectations. They’re battling the media scrutiny that comes with playing in a city like Los Angeles and being a franchise like the Lakers. They’re battling the hole they dug with their 2-9 start and the increasing likelihood that they miss the postseason altogether.

Each miss, each turnover, each loss is adding up on their psyche. It’s been one step forward, two (or three) steps back all season.

“An emotional roller coaster, for sure,” Davis said. “It’s just, like, frustrating. We’re up and down. And the first five that we lost, we were in each game. Our defense was unbelievable, but we just couldn’t make shots. Now it’s the other way around. We’re playing well offensively, but we’re not playing defense. Thats where the optimism comes in. If we put it all together for 48 minutes, we know what type of team we can be.”

Ham’s challenge doesn’t just involve adjusting his tactics or tweaking his rotation. It’s ensuring that a group of players that have high expectations for themselves don’t give up on the season. Ham, who’s a self-proclaimed “glass-half-full” kind of guy, remains in good spirits.

“It’s been great,” Ham said. “Obviously, you get frustrated by certain things, especially when it’s self-inflicted. But I’m good, man. I’m the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. A little kid, redhead kid … well, used to be a redhead kid. East Saginaw (Michigan), man. I’m thrilled. I’m blessed, man.”

Though James hasn’t always shared Ham’s optimism when discussing the team’s record, shooting or talent, he echoed a similar sentiment regarding his responsibility as the team’s leader and the 24/7 nature of keeping his teammates bought in and motivated.

James, Davis, Westbrook and Patrick Beverley — the team’s four player leaders — have been texting with each other on a daily basis to try to figure out ways for the team to improve on both ends of the floor. Players are staying hours after practice to pore over film and work on their free throws and jumpers.

“It’s easy to be great when things are going great,” James said. “But being able to keep your head above water when things don’t look so great or the sun don’t seem like it’s shining much upon you … you know, how you can stay into the fight, stay into the fray. I’ve always said, leadership is not … you don’t get to pick if it’s going to be a Tuesday and Thursday that I want to lead. No, it’s every single day. You might have your moments; I mean, we’re human. But for the majority of time, you’ve got to be able to first take accountability of yourself, and then hopefully, it trickles down onto everybody else.”

Ham noticed a drop-off in the Lakers’ body language and tenacity when James left the game midway through the fourth. The Lakers were down 12 points, so the game was most likely out of reach even if James hadn’t exited. Ham chalked their reaction up to human nature; the team was demoralized after losing their James and not knowing the severity of the situation.

But this team can only handle so many more losses before its spirit and soul break. James’ absence, combined with upcoming losses to teams they should beat, could tilt them heavily in that direction if they don’t turn things around quickly or at least find the right perspective. Thats easier said than done.

It’s not really the wins and losses. I know it matters; absolutely that’s not lost on me,” Ham said. “It’s the way we approach the game: our attitude, our energy, going into games and sustaining that, sustaining the competitive spirit. There’s gonna be ups and downs, there’s going to be challenges. … But we just got to pick ourselves back up, fill our cups back up and go prepare.

“And LeBron, if he’s able to come right back, great. If he has to spend some time on the sideline, then we have to deal with that, as well. But I’m not in the business of feeling sorry for myself, and I’m not gonna allow my team to do that.”

(Photo of Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James: Rob Gray / USA Today)


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