So that was it.

There was no heroic final push. No stay of execution. No extreme makeover.

On the biggest night of their year, the Lakers were exactly who they have always been.

Like has so often happened throughout this disastrous season, the Lakers crumbled in the final minutes on Friday, losing 114-111 to New Orleans, blowing a lead and wasting their last opportunity to make a postseason push.

When LeBron James’ off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer failed to so much as hit the rim, it was a fitting representation of a total misfire of a season.

“It pretty much was a must-win for us,” James said, “and we didn’t get the job done.”

The loss did not mathematically eliminate the Lakers from playoff contention, but it is all but impossible to forecast a path to the postseason.

They are now a full game, plus the tiebreaker, behind San Antonio for 10th in the West and need to finish two games better than the Spurs over the final five games.

If San Antonio wins one more game — which they can do on Sunday against tanking Portland —  the Lakers would need to win three.

That feels like an impossible task for a team that has won just four games since the All-Star break and faces a brutal closing stretch that includes two games against Denver and road games at Phoenix and Golden State.

James, who scored a game-high 38 points after missing the past two games with a sprained ankle, held on to a shred of hope, but even that rang hollow.

“Until it says we’re eliminated, it doesn’t (feel like the end),” he said. “(After) that moment, we’ll know what our destiny is, but right now, we don’t. So keep pushing forward.”

There will be time to unpack the fallout of this season, the roster decisions that led the Lakers here, the toll of injuries to James and Anthony Davis, who returned on Friday after an 18-game absence.

But on Friday, it was just the aging Lakers suffering the indignity of being flattened by the team that less than three years ago traded its best player to Los Angeles and in that short time has surpassed the Lakers in the Western Conference hierarchy.

“For me, it’s another game,” Davis said.

But the spoils of that trade keep getting richer for the Pelicans. By effectively knocking the Lakers out of the Play-In, the Pelicans all but ensured themselves another top-10 pick from the Davis trade. If the Lakers pick – currently slotted eighth – lands in the top 10, it will stay with the Pelicans, whereas if it lands at No. 11 or later, New Orleans will have to send it to Memphis.

And though no one is trying to relitigate the trade for Davis, which led to the Lakers 2020 championship, it’s hard not to recognize the symbolism that was the Pelicans delivering the fatal blow to the Lakers season, if not the championship window of the Davis-James era.

Where the Lakers go from here is the only question. James is due for a contract extension, but the Lakers will have to decide how desperate they are to unload Russell Westbrook’s contract and learn from the mistakes of past offseasons when building around Davis and James with limited resources.

And then there is Davis himself. He played just his 38th game of the season on Friday, virtually an entire year lost after he played just half of the regular season a year ago.

These are big questions, and the Lakers will have a long summer to address them. But they are also the themes that will hang over the final five games of this season.

Perhaps the season was always leading to this point, an inevitable disappointment, but the collection of talent always felt too significant to overlook the possibility of a resurgence.

You couldn’t count out a team with LeBron James.

But after James scored 21 points in the third quarter on Friday, he attempted just four shots in the fourth, as the Lakers failed to score after taking a 108-105 lead with 3:11 left until James hit Avery Bradley with a pass for a 3-pointer with 16.5 seconds remaining to pull the Lakers within one.

An entire season might have played out in those three minutes, but it was not lost.

A full autopsy of this year would show a casual approach to a winless preseason, an acceptance of early struggles and an inability to overcome injuries.

Even players overcoming injuries was in and of itself something to be overcome, especially for Westbrook. The miscast point guard was an odd fit from the beginning but would have benefitted from some consistency around him. Instead, Friday marked just his 21st game with Davis and James, and with the fate of the season hanging in the balance, he had to readjust to playing with both stars for the first time since Davis got hurt on Feb. 16.

So it was fitting that on the night it was most critical that the Lakers get a win, they were essentially starting over.

“I just think it’s the nature of the disjointed season that we’ve had,” an exhausted Frank Vogel said.

When Westbrook, who struggled mightily offensively before knocking down two 3s in the fourth, was asked if the lack of late-game familiarity with James and Davis reflected the season as a whole, he said, “Yeah, I mean, that sums it up.”

So in that sense, the Lakers stayed true to their identity.

Inasmuch as they ever had one.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.