With only four games left to be played ahead of the NBA All-Star break, the Los Angeles Lakers are starting to struggle, which has prompted some to doubt whether this team led by LeBron James can repeat as NBA champions.
The Lakers didn’t miss a beat to start the 2020-21 campaign after an incredibly short offseason as they dominated the competition on a nightly basis. However, things have started to trend downward, with Anthony Davis struggling to stay healthy and Dennis Schroder missing games due to health and safety protocols.
On Wednesday, the Lakers faced perhaps their toughest matchup in the Western Conference thus far. James and company went on the road to face the league-leading Utah Jazz without Davis and Schroder, and the result wasn’t pretty.
The defending champions were dominated from start to finish, with Donovan Mitchell’s squad making easy work of the shorthanded Lakers.
Following the blowout loss to the Jazz, veteran forward Markieff Morris made some intriguing observations about his team and how it has been impacted mentally and physically.
“It’s tough, man. It’s just different,” Morris said. “Mentally, you never really get a chance to roll over. We’re playing every other day, and some of the days that we’re not playing, we’re flying. But that’s still no no excuse, because everybody in the league is dealing with the same thing. It’s mental with us right now. It shouldn’t be easy. We shouldn’t run through the season easy because we need stuff like this to level us out, to learn our weaknesses and work on them. You never win without having these type of lapses through the season.”
Throughout most of the season thus far, the Lakers have coasted through games with a tendency to look bored and complacent. Few teams were able to compete with the reloaded roster in Los Angeles. The consensus around the league was no team was deeper than this Lakers roster.
That complacency and relative boredom led the Lakers to play down to their competition at times, leading to four of the last 10 games going into overtime. Most of those overtime games were against teams the Lakers expected to crush without much resistance.
Morris believes that the team’s hot start and recent complacency didn’t lead to the recent struggles the Lakers have been going through.
“I wouldn’t say that, because we’ve still got the two best players in the world, so it makes the game a lot easier for us,” Morris said. “I told J-Kidd (Jason Kidd) about a week ago that now we really have to think the game more so than just play. I think early on we won with talent a lot. We’ve got a lot of role players that know their role. Now with those guys out, A.D. in particular, we need guys to do different things.”
A lot of players in the league this season are dealing with fatigue, both mentally and physically. The amount of basketball they’ve played over the last two years has been unprecedented on top of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and all the problems that come with it.
Morris opened up about battling through the workload and players needing to stay mentally tough to endure such a grind.
“This is the most basketball I’ve ever played in my life — this season and last season combined,” Morris said. “It’s an unbelievable amount of basketball we’re all playing, and mentally it gets draining. Especially when you lose. But like I said before, we need this. This is a mental test for all of us to see where we’re at without one of our best players. We’ve just got to work from there.”
Although there’s still a lot of basketball left to be played in the regular season, the Lakers are focused on being ready for another deep run in the playoffs. Morris admits that the loss to the Jazz was humbling, but it’s all about the playoffs, and these kinds of challenges are needed to test championship contenders.
“Of course we’re going to make the playoffs, so I would say our whole preparation is preparing for the playoffs,” Morris said. “We see the Jazz, we know they beat our a– tonight, but in the playoffs, it’s a different story.
“We’re in a situation right now where it’s new to all of us, so it’s not supposed to click right away. It’s supposed to take time. It’s supposed to challenge. It’s supposed to feel like our backs are against the wall. Everybody needs that to bring out their true self when you’ve got to fight when your back is against the wall because you’ve lost a couple games.”
The Lakers will now try to pick up the pieces from the loss to the Jazz and prepare for the final four games of the first half of the season before heading into a much-needed All-Star break.
Los Angeles may have Schroder back on the floor on Friday against the Portland Trail Blazers, which will be a welcome boost in the backcourt that should take some of the strain off James in the ball-handling department.
Despite Schroder’s expected return, the Lakers’ primary focus is getting Davis healthy and the rest of the squad ready for what will certainly be a challenging second half of the 2020-21 campaign.