LeBron James walked down the court, his chest heaving and frustration and sweat rolling down his face. His eyes looked to the ceiling. His mouthpiece jutted in and out.
More than 1,300 games into his NBA career, the worst feeling was written all over him as his shoulders slumped to the court.
There was nothing he could do. Another blown possession, another wasted night, another chance at grabbing the tiniest piece of momentum lost and he couldn’t stop it.
James tried to fix it — sometimes too hard.
He instructed Anthony Davis to be more physical in the post and barked at Malik Monk during a timeout. But he also turned the ball over — firing deep passes into coverage like a practice squad NFL quarterback.
Yeah, he could bully Memphis on his way into the paint, but as the game wore on and the Grizzlies lead grew, the breaths in and out of his mouth got deeper and his legs looked heavier.
The acquisition of Russell Westbrook was supposed to mitigate this, he and Davis the kind of stars that could lighten the load on James’ nearly 37-year-old shoulders.
But with where the Lakers are now, there’s no room for bad nights among those players — the rest of the roster is, even in a perfect world, built to complement them and not cover for them.
Losing in Memphis to the Grizzlies is, in itself, not particularly shameful. But the Grizzlies were without star Ja Morant. They had played Dallas the night before. And then just before game time, they found out they’d be without Dillon Brooks because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
For most of the first quarter, the Lakers looked like an animal perfectly happy to feast on their weakened foe. Talen Horton-Tucker threw down a one-handed dunk, James slammed the ball with two hands and Davis stuffed it home — three-straight dunks off of three-straight stops, the Lakers playing their style perfectly.
But like it’s been all year, nothing says “Lakers basketball” more than a quick return from excellence to mediocrity. The Grizzlies stormed back in the second quarter with James on the bench and took control of the game in the second half, the Lakers forced to scramble uphill.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.