LeBron James walked down the court, his chest heaving and frustration and sweat rolling down his face. His eyes looked to the ceiling. His mouthpiece moved in and out.
More than 1,300 games into his NBA career, the worst feeling was written all over him as his shoulders slumped to the court.
There was nothing he could do. Another blown possession, another wasted night, another chance at grabbing the tiniest piece of momentum lost and he couldn’t stop it.
“I hate losing,” James said. “Frustrated from the loss and how we played at times during the game.”
It’s been the case all season for the Lakers, a team good enough to show that the hype was deserved and that their reputations are still relevant only to collapse under moderate pressure from an opponent.
“We got to play like we’re the underdogs, which, now, at this point of the season, the way we’re playing, a lot of games, we probably are,” the Lakers’ Anthony Davis said (the Lakers were four-point favorites). “We got to be able to have that mindset and we got to come in and be scrappy and be the more physical team and play like we’re the underdogs.”
James tried to fix it — sometimes too hard.
He instructed Davis to be more physical in the post and barked at Malik Monk during a timeout. But he also turned the ball over — firing deep passes into coverage like a practice-squad NFL quarterback.
He finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists.
Yeah, he could bully Memphis on his way into the paint, but as the game wore on and the Grizzlies’ lead grew, the breaths in and out of his mouth got deeper and his legs looked heavier.
He missed five of his six shots from three and went scoreless in the fourth quarter.
All five of James’ turnovers came in the first half — he pointed out postgame that he managed to make the adjustment at halftime.
The acquisition of Russell Westbrook was supposed to mitigate this, he and Davis the kind of stars who could lighten the load on James’ nearly 37-year-old shoulders.
But with where the Lakers are now, there’s no room for bad nights among those players — the rest of the roster is, even in a perfect world, built to complement them and not cover for them.
Losing in Memphis to the Grizzlies is, in itself, not really shameful. But the Grizzlies the Lakers faced Thursday were without star Ja Morant. They had played Dallas the night before. And then just before game time, they found out they’d be without Dillon Brooks because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
For most of the first quarter, the Lakers looked like an animal perfectly happy to feast on a weakened foe.
Talen Horton-Tucker threw down a one-handed dunk, James slammed the ball with two hands and Davis stuffed it home — three straight dunks off of three straight stops, the Lakers executing their style perfectly.
But like it’s been all year, nothing says “Lakers basketball” more than a quick return from excellence to mediocrity. The Grizzlies stormed back in the second quarter with James on the bench and took control of the game in the second half, the Lakers forced to scramble uphill.
“The energy of the game shifted,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our turnovers went way up, we didn’t rebound the basketball, we were slow to every loose ball, and there was just too much of a casualness to our approach after we got that early lead.
“It wasn’t even a huge lead, but we just, we got casual.”
Just like James walking back down the floor after a botched opportunity during the game, the Lakers were slow to board their plane after — moving forward never an easy thing for this group this season.
“We got to be a more consistent team if we want to truly compete for a championship,” Davis said. “And it’s a mindset thing. …We can’t keep taking a step forward and two steps backwards. So we got to fix it — quickly.”