LeBron James is the gift that keeps on giving. The Lakers’ defense is the gift that keeps on giving opponents chances to win.
James, five days short of his 37th birthday, was spectacular in scoring 39 points on Saturday and leading the Lakers’ remarkable fourth-quarter push against the Brooklyn Nets in a showcase Christmas Day game at the newly renamed Crypto.com Arena. He brought them back into a game they didn’t deserve to win, helping them erase a 20-point deficit after three quarters and bringing fans to their feet in hopes of seeing if not a Christmas miracle, at least an end to the Lakers’ losing streak.
Despite his herculean efforts — again — the Lakers fell short. Their 122-115 loss to the equally COVID-stricken Nets was their fifth straight defeat and a waste of the latest in a series of astonishing performances by James, who passed the late Kobe Bryant to become the NBA’s leading scorer in Christmas Day games.
“To watch it and to be a part of it even though those games are turning into Ls, I’ve never seen anything like this guy,” interim coach David Fizdale said, “and we better sure as hell be thanking our lucky stars for this guy. He has given us the most beautiful basketball for the last however many years and he’s still giving it to us on Christmas Day.”
Fizdale paused to ask if James had broken Bryant’s record, which happened late in the first half. James now has 422 points in 16 Christmas Day games. “That’s fantastic,” Fizdale said. “At least I can say I was there for that.”
He then laughed, though there wasn’t much humor to it. Watching James was undeniably stirring, and he brought the Lakers within two, at 115-113, with a three-point shot from 30 feet and assisted on the Malik Monk finger-roll layup that tied the game at 115 with 40.7 seconds left.
But there has to be more to the Lakers (16-18) than James and a bunch of guys who take up space, and without the injured Anthony Davis to share the burden, the team’s already-flawed roster looks infinitely worse. A team built around the players James wanted to play with and that looked unbalanced to start now looks like a team that will struggle to finish in the top six in the West and avoid a play-in situation. Russell Westbrook recorded a triple-double despite four-for-20 shooting, adding 12 rebounds and 11 assists — but was a minus-23 defensively and missed a dunk with 26 seconds left and the Nets up by three. At some point that’s not tenable. Maybe soon.
Fizdale, coaching his fourth straight game while coach Frank Vogel remains in COVID-19 protocols, defended Westbrook more vigorously than Westbrook defended any opponent on Saturday.
“He’s got to keep attacking. That’s who he is. He’s a rim-attacking finisher. And for whatever reason he just missed it,” Fizdale said of the dunk.
“A big part of it is he just wants it so bad. Man, you can see it. He wants it so bad. I just know it’s hard for him when it doesn’t work out. I know he cares like crazy. This is everything to him and sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. But we had a couple other missed layups in the fourth as well that would have been a game-changer for us. I just want him to take a lot of that pressure off himself and keep attacking, keep playing the way we know he can.”
Asked what the Lakers can do to maintain momentum during the times James inevitably must take a rest, Fizdale was at a loss.
“Clone him?” Fizdale suggested. “We can clone him. Know any good scientists? We can maybe make a duplicate. I don’t know. I don’t know. We just got to figure that out.”
They haven’t been able to figure it out so far. They’re 34 games into a season of constant change, and although COVID protocols kept Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore and Austin Reaves from playing on Saturday, the Nets had to contend with the COVID-related absences of LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, among others. Every team is adjusting, some better than others. The Lakers are flailing.
They showed enough spark and energy to take an 68-66 lead early in the third quarter but were then overrun by a 16-8 Brooklyn run, and their fourth-quarter comeback was exciting but not enough to end their losing streak.
“Just too many waves in the game and not enough consistent, solid basketball through four quarters,” Fizdale said, reserving the right to skip additional analysis until he has time to look at the game film.
It doesn’t take much analysis to know the Lakers are a G-league team — in this case, the G standing for geriatric. Isaiah Thomas, rescued from the developmental G league last week and made a starter in his second game, was a Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision. Rancho Cucamonga native and former UCLA standout Darren Collison, 34, ended a two-year retirement Saturday by playing 12 minutes and contributing two rebounds and one assist.
“This guy comes right from home and competed his tail off and looked like an NBA player out on the basketball court,” Fizdale said, “and that’s pretty good for a guy that was just at home.”
It’s a feel-good story, but not one that’s likely to become a storyline in a successful season. The Lakers’ arena got a new name for Christmas but they got only another loss in a season overflowing with them, and that’s becoming a sad, old story.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.