Instead of a Merry Christmas, Maybe LeBron Will Have a Happy Birthday
LOS ANGELES — The sight of Patrick Beverley strutting around with a finger aloft and letting the Los Angeles Clippers’ team owner, Steve Ballmer, wrap him up in a triumphant hug is not how LeBron James intended to celebrate Christmas.
For the Los Angeles Lakers, it was the sort of dreaded scene that generates an aftertaste bound to linger — and maybe even encroach on James’s 35th birthday on Monday.
“I don’t want to think about it too much,” said Rajon Rondo, one of James’s veteran teammates, when asked to ponder the implications of the Lakers’ second successive loss to their Staples Center co-tenants.
On opening night back in October, with Kyle Kuzma and Rondo out injured, it was easier for the Lakers to rationalize their defeat. On Christmas Day — which is often billed as the marker on the mythical national sporting calendar when the N.B.A. begins to be consumed by a wider audience — it was tougher for the Lakers to take.
They fumed after the Clippers’ 111-106 triumph Wednesday night about a few questionable whistles in the fourth quarter, but the Lakers mostly blamed themselves for squandering a 15-point lead — and allowing the Clippers to bait them into 45 attempts from 3-point range.
The Lakers are not known for their perimeter proficiency and made only 12 of those 45 shots. Despite amassing a near triple-double with 23 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds, James was at the heart of his team’s struggles, missing 10 of his 12 attempts from long range and managing just four free-throw attempts — one of which he crucially missed inside the final minute with the Clippers leading by 4.
On the other side, Kawhi Leonard led the Clippers with a rugged 35 points, 12 rebounds and 5 assists — even after Lakers Coach Frank Vogel started Anthony Davis on Leonard defensively in hopes that Davis’s length would slow him some. Then Beverley, who chipped in nine meaningful rebounds, sealed the win with an ambitious strip with 3.6 seconds remaining as James rose up for a potential game-tying 3 from the wing.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” James said. “We’ve got to continue to get better and we will.”
The Lakers’ predicament, of course, could be much worse. For confirmation, they need only rewind to last Christmas, when James suffered a groin tear in the midst of a stirring victory over the Golden State Warriors that turned into the first long-term injury of his career, sidelining him for 17 games.
More than anything else in James’s chaotic first season in Hollywood, that injury prevented him for reaching the N.B.A. postseason for the first time in 14 years — and stretched the Lakers’ playoff drought to a franchise-worst six seasons.
The reality, though, is that James is ailing anew as his 35th birthday approaches. Groin and rib-cage discomfort caused him to miss a game against Denver last Sunday — James’s first absence of the season — and an inadvertent knee to the groin from Beverley in the first quarter Wednesday appeared to hurt his effectiveness against the Clippers. James started 0 for 7 from the field, and the 10 missed 3s set a career high.
“It kind of set me right back to where I was five days ago,” James said of the collision with Beverley nearly two minutes into the game.
As recently as Dec. 15, James and his Lakers were sailing. In a win at Atlanta that night, James pretended to try to block a Rondo layup — just to show how much fun his team was having — as Los Angeles moved to a glittering 24-3 record. None of James’s previous 16 seasons had ever begun so drama-free.
Yet the Lakers haven’t won a game since, dropping four in a row after publicly establishing that the team’s goal was avoiding even back-to-back losses for the whole season. The next game after the Atlanta victory, at Indiana, is the one in which James incurred what was later diagnosed as a thoracic muscle strain in the rib-cage area.
Priority No. 1 for the Lakers from here on, then, is making sure James’s condition doesn’t get any worse, even if that means forcing him to skip this weekend’s games: Saturday at Portland and Sunday at home against Dallas. The losing streak, however, has resuscitated broader questions about the Lakers’ dearth of shot creators beyond James.
“Everything is about later, everything you do,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said, straining to downplay the meaning of a late-December meeting between these teams, no matter how much hype was circulating about a potential Western Conference finals preview and the playoff atmosphere in the building.
Leonard sounded a similar tone in his postgame interview with ESPN’s Lisa Salters, insisting that the outcome “does nothing” because Wednesday’s victor “was not going to win the L.A. championship or anything.”
“It’s about winning the game now but learning what you can do — who you are,” Rivers said. “We don’t even know who we are yet. No one does really, other than the teams like Denver who’ve been together. The Lakers are going to be way better down the road as well; so will we.”
What Rivers didn’t disclose is that he already does know his ideal fivesome to close games: Leonard, Paul George, Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell — and can rotate almost all of them (most notably Leonard) to hound James defensively. The Clippers (23-10) have also had Leonard and George on the floor together for just 14 games, winning 11 of them while knowing that their partnership is still truly in its infancy.
In his first season with the Lakers, Vogel has seen enough to know that James and Davis are positively dreamy together. But Kuzma remains an up-and-down sixth man, rather than the third star some project, while the other role players and shooters on the roster have been inconsistent. The Lakers have slipped to eighth in the league’s defensive rating after a dominant start.
“I wouldn’t say we’re upset — just disappointed,” Jared Dudley, another veteran Lakers reserve, said after the loss. “We played well enough to win up until the last three, four minutes. Then it was mental errors, turnovers, bad fouls, bad defensive rebounding.
”Any team that loses four in a row has definitely lost some momentum, but it’s the necessary process for us to get through our adversity and have the season we want at the end.”
The second-half unraveling, in truth, was a microcosm for everything that has happened to the Lakers since the loose Atlanta showing.
Davis fell into the lap of the Hollywood superstar Kevin Hart just before the halftime buzzer, prompting James to promptly head over to Hart’s courtside seat location and smother him, too. The Lakers were leading, 63-51, and clearly having a blast.
By night’s end, Davis was at his locker saying over and over that the Lakers had given this Christmas showdown away, while James appeared to acknowledge the daunting nature of holding off Father Time for as long as he has.
“You get the opportunity to play the game you love on Christmas, in front of the world, and you just try to live in the moment,” James said. “It won’t last forever, that’s for sure.”
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