It had been basically 11 months, from the Los Angeles Lakers entering the Orlando bubble to begin their journey to last year’s NBA championship to Thursday night, when an attempt at a repeat run ended with a Game 6 first-round series loss to the Phoenix Suns at the Staples Center.
The Lakers finished by their own volition exhausted and broken. The lasting image from the finale was of star Anthony Davis on the bench with a towel wrapped around his head unable to play because of knee and groin injuries. LeBron James played through a high ankle injury suffered during a shortened and compacted 72-game regular season.
This off-season will be a return to some sort of normal for the Lakers, at least, heading toward an 82-game season slated to begin in November.
“During the season I don’t talk about rest—that makes me weak,” James said after the 113-100 loss, during which the defending champs were down by as much as 29 points in the first half. “But during the off-season I’ll have an opportunity to rest for like three months to recalibrate, get my ankle back to 100%. I never was fully able to get back to where I was before the injury.”
The Lakers’ title run ended last Oct. 11. On Dec. 22 the entire league was back at it, giving the participants in the previous finals little more than two months to rest and “recalibrate” between two extraordinary seasons that were shortened by the coronavirus and marked by constant testing and protocol restrictions.
The Miami Heat, which lost to the Lakers in six games, also were just knocked out in the first round. “We’ve been at this for a while, so where we’re headed first is rest,” Heat president Pat Riley said in the wake of Miami’s sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks. “Our players, our staff, the people that have been here every day, every single day, they’re mentally worn out more so than physically. And I think they just need to rest for a couple of weeks, a month.”
Last year, the season was abruptly halted, along with all other pro and collegiate sports, on March 12 when Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz became the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19, a novel disease that would ultimately kill 600,000 in the U.S. and force the country to shut down much of its public life before vaccinations were made commonly available earlier this year.
That COVID pause lasted 71 days, causing a staggered effect for some teams. The Golden State Warriors, for instance, weren’t invited into the bubble because of their 15-50 record and didn’t play a real game between March 11 and Dec. 22.
The Suns, in contrast, remained in the bubble for about two weeks, posting an 8-0 record before losing out the play-in round. They had a pretty full off-season to prepare for where they are right now: heading into a second-round best-of-seven series against the Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns Arena, beginning Monday night.
Last year’s short-rest scenario will virtually repeat itself for the two teams that make it to the finals, which aren’t scheduled to begin until July 8 and could extend as long as July 22 if the series goes its full seven games.
That would leave about two months for those teams to get ready to open camp in October.
“From the moment we went into the bubble to today has been draining,” said James, who lost a first-round series for the first time in his career. “Mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally draining. For us and Miami, going the long haul in the bubble and coming back on the short notice into this season has been very draining.”
Davis (calf) and James (ankle) missed a combined 63 games during the regular season and played in only 27 together. The Lakers barely made the seventh seed in the West because of it and had to face No. 2 Phoenix.
Davis went down with a sore groin coming off a hyperextended knee after the first half of Game 4 at Los Angeles. He tried to play Thursday night but lasted about five minutes before coming out of the game for good.
The Suns dominated the last 10 quarters of the series, with Davis out and a less than 100% James having to shoulder the burden. The two games Los Angeles won, unsurprisingly, were when James and Davis were virtually at full strength. The Suns had no answer to that superstar combination, just as the Warriors lost a play-in game to the Lakers when the duo was healthy.
The Suns had injury issues of their own, with Chris Paul battling a sore shoulder suffered when he hit the floor hard early in Game 1. Paul’s health will continue to be a storyline as the playoffs move forward. Elsewhere, the Philadelphia 76ers are dealing with injured center Joel Embiid (torn meniscus) as they open their second-round series at home against Atlanta Sunday.
“It was a quick turnaround,” Davis said about the season. “We really didn’t get a full summer. I usually take about a month off and that still gives you about six weeks for weight-room training. And then you have another month for on-court. We didn’t get that. It messed us up when you have such a short time to recover from a season and get ready for a season….
“It’s all about how elite bodies didn’t handle it very well,” he said. “But now we have the opportunity with this longer off-season to get our bodies ready. I know I am going to build up, train and get ready for next season.”