OAKLAND — The Lakers did most everything right in their Christmas Day spectacular against the defending champions, and still their season almost went terribly wrong. This is the NBA in a nutshell. A 127-101 win against the Warriors in December is an accomplishment. For LeBron James to suffer a serious injury, however—as he appeared to after lunging for a loose ball in the third quarter—would simply undo that accomplishment and everything it stood for. There are no good tidings to be had when season-altering injuries are in the air, no matter how spirited their circumstances.
“With me and injuries, I’m never too concerned,” James said. He may be the only one.
Fortunately for the Lakers, James may have avoided the worst-case scenario. An injury that seemed to cause LeBron considerable discomfort and forced him out of a showcase game was later announced as a strained left groin—as opposed to, say, a torn left hip. On the broadcast, James could be seen telling Lakers officials that he “felt a pop,” a sensation that typically comes with structural damage. Yet an initial examination of the injury did not reveal any tear, according to a report from Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports, allowing the Tuesday night win its full holiday sweetness. The Lakers may only find their full peace of mind after James undergoes an MRI on Wednesday to confirm the diagnosis, but for now, there seems reason enough to exhale.
There’s room to appreciate the work of fill-in starter Ivica Zubac, whose size and patience gave the Warriors fits. Nothing complicates Golden State’s defensive scheme quite so much as a big center who can keep his wits about him. Zubac aced the test to the point that the Warriors met him with double teams, opening up L.A.’s other shooters and cutters in the process. And considering that the 7' 1" Zubac was able to back down Kevin Durant with ease, who could blame them? With the way he converted nine of his 10 shots from the field, wasn’t he worth some attention, if only to see how he might respond?
One can admire how Rajon Rondo was able to keep the Lakers centered after James made his exit, in spite of the Warriors' run that everyone knew was coming. What was a 14-point lead for Los Angeles all but evaporated. It was then that the Lakers rebuilt their advantage, bucket for bucket and stop for stop. Painstaking execution brought Golden State’s offense to a halt. From there, Rondo kept the Lakers moving and the Warriors on the ropes. Thirteen of Rondo’s 15 points and five of his 10 assists came after LeBron’s injury, at the stage in the game when the Lakers needed them most.
This is not a team built to survive LeBron’s absence, which is why the world around the Lakers seems to stop whenever he comes up with a limp. Cameras trained on James as he stretched—not just for B-roll, but for clues as to the seriousness of the injury itself. Any more serious diagnosis could have conference-altering implications. There is no one, clear challenger to the Warriors in the way the Rockets were last year, leaving open a path to the Western Conference finals. The Lakers have a case—so long as a strained groin is only a strained groin, and so long as James can make it through the rest of the season in one piece.
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Performances like these only affirm it. “I thought that was probably our most complete game of the season,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said on Tuesday. He had good reason to think so. Golden State’s true shooting percentage (49.4%) on Christmas was its second-lowest mark of the season, its struggles owed to an overloading defense. Process became a problem for the Warriors. When Stephen Curry and Durant encountered multiple defenders in their path, their attempts to pass their way out of pressure often went nowhere. The Lakers refused to overreact. When the ball swung to Draymond Green at the three-point line, no defender flew his way. At first, Green shot—and missed. Then, he hesitated. “I kinda ***ed our whole offense up,” Green said. “That kinda messed the flow of the game up.”
To be fair, the Warriors’ problems went well beyond Green alone. The Lakers didn’t show much respect for Kevon Looney, or Shaun Livingston, or Alphonzo McKinnie, or Andre Iguodala—even as Iguodala turned in a season-high 23 points. Klay Thompson, who scored five points on two-of-seven shooting, was effectively rendered invisible. L.A.’s entire defense prioritized Curry and Durant and swung on a dare. For now, that was enough. The Lakers rendered one verdict as they wait for another.