No matter what happens from here on, the Lakers will look back to that fateful match in the middle of March. They were rolling then, owners of a four-outing streak that gave them two times as many wins as losses. And then acknowledged leader LeBron James suffered a freak injury in the second quarter. The high right ankle sprain ruined his Sunday and plenty more days after; so severe was its negative effect on his fitness that it sidelined him for 27 of their last 31 games, during which time they went 14-17 and limped to seventh place in the Western Conference.
The good news is that James appears ready and locked in, the scare he experienced in the Lakers’ finale the other day notwithstanding. In the fourth quarter of an ultimately meaningless victory against the Pelicans, he stepped on the foot of Nickeil Alexander-Walker and seemed to have aggravated his injury. Out he immediately went, and fans expected the worst. He’s no longer a spring chicken, after all; to the contrary, he’s an old 36 coming off the worst injury of his 20-year career. As things turned out, there was little reason to worry. As he noted in the aftermath, “I’ll be fine.”
For the Lakers to walk the talk, James will need to be more than fine. No eventual champions have come from as low a seeding as seventh, and they’ll just as likely implode as cap an unprecedented run for the hardware. Which is to say his contributions on and off the court are critical to their success. And if they’re exuding confidence that borders on the unrealistic, it’s because he knows how to win, period. And the competition knows, too; it’s why the Clippers shied away from the opportunity to improve their standing to third, and why the Nuggets put up no resistance against the Blazers, who secured the sixth spot as a result.
Will the Lakers defy the odds and manage to retain the Larry O’Brien Trophy? Only time will tell. One thing’s sure in any case; they’re complete and cocksure. If they lose, it won’t be because they beat themselves. Not with James locked in, and not with those around him following his lead.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.