The Los Angeles Lakers began the defense of their NBA title on Sunday in Phoenix, and they’re not in the coronavirus bubble anymore.
Last year, they were one of two teams to play as late as Oct. 11. Yes, the Lakers spent two months in the Orlando bubble before they defeated the Miami Heat in six games.
Now they’re back in the playoffs seven months later. And their bubble burst.
“It’s been a very challenging year,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said after his team lost 99-90 to the Suns in Game 1 of its best-of-seven first-round playoff series. “Our guys are intent on defending our title and repeating as champions, and we’re up for the challenge.”
Not Sunday. Not in Phoenix Suns Arena in front of the largest crowd of the season—11,824 in a building that recently underwent a $230 million renovation and can seat as many as 18,422 for basketball.
The Suns had gradually increased attendance this season from about 3,000, playing the last two regular season home games at close to 50% capacity. But compared to last year’s stage of no fans, the arena in Phoenix was rocking for the playoffs. The Suns hadn’t been to the postseason since 2010, and they’ve never won a championship.
“It’s great to have a fan atmosphere,” Vogel said. “Here we are; we’re the road team. All of us are competitors. I missed that environment. I think the guys were up to it.”
The No. 2 seeded Suns were in full force out-running and out-manning the Lakers, containing their big two of LeBron James and Anthony Davis to a combined 31 points, including 18 for James, who was not really a factor in the fourth quarter.
Game 2 is in Phoenix on Tuesday night, and James said he’s already searching for answers.
“Every year is a challenge, but this seems like a big blur,” James said. “It just feels like we went from one playoffs to the next. To be completely honest, we feel like we played in the bubble and competed to win a championship. Now we’re back in arenas and traveling to compete for a championship….
“This is very taxing, but the point of it is to survive. We’re in the position we put ourselves in.”
The Lakers were the seventh seed this season and had to engineer a spirited second half of a play-in game this past Wednesday just get into the playoffs. L.A. beat the Golden State Warriors on LeBron’s 35-foot desperate heave from near half court at the Staples Center with 10 seconds to go.
But there were no second-half comebacks in the Los Angeles arsenal Sunday. The Lakers pulled within seven with 6:41 to play in the fourth, but that was as close as they would get. Devin Booker led all scorers with 34 points.
The action was chippy, with Chris Paul hitting the floor and suffering a right shoulder contusion midway through the second quarter. He returned to the game, though in obvious pain.
“I’ll be all right,” Paul said. “I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Just get through the game.’”
Early in the fourth quarter Paul submarined James, who took a massive spill under the Lakers’ basket as three other players mixed it up, leading to four technical fouls for the altercation, including the ejection of Suns backup point guard Cameron Payne.
“Things happen,” Paul said. “It’s just an emotional game.”
Vogel called it an aggressive, dangerous play. “LeBron got his legs cut out from under him,” he said, setting the tone for the series.
“It’s just tough playoff basketball,” Davis added. “LeBron told me that any time he goes up for a rebound and somebody takes out his legs, it’s always a dangerous play. That’s what you don’t want, you don’t want to get injured on plays like that. But the intensity is where it’s supposed to be—guys getting at it and chirping….
“That’s the way playoff basketball is,” he said. “They were the more physical team today right out of the gate. We have to get better at it.”
It doesn’t help team cohesion that James (ankle) and Davis (calf) missed a combined 63 regular season games and played only 27 together during the NBA’s COVID-shortened 72-game season.
The Phoenix defense simply swarmed James and Davis, who was held to just 13 points and blamed himself for the loss.
“There’s no way we’re going to win a game let alone the series the way I played,” Davis said. “I take full responsibility, for sure.”
As mentioned earlier, last year’s playoffs ended on Oct. 11, and the regular season began on Dec. 22, giving the Lakers a bit more than a two-month breather before they revved it up again.
Now they’re in it for the long haul against a much younger and quicker team. No wonder James thinks it’s all been a blur.