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LeBron James walked down the tunnel toward the Lakers locker room, his ankle sore, his team losing and one giant truth on his mind about the hopes they'll repeat as NBA champs or even make the playoffs.
“It doesn't matter at the end of the day, if I'm not 100% or close to 100%,” he said. Whether it’s a spot in the NBA’s play-in tournament with the other bottom-seeded teams or a tough matchup with a fellow Finals contender like the Clippers, all of it is moot if James isn't healthy.
Two games into his return from more than a month off because of a high right ankle sprain, he doesn’t feel right, his early exit in Sunday’s loss to the Raptors an uncomfortable reminder. And with the Lakers sliding in the standings, James sent a shot toward the NBA league office.
“If we end up in the playoff — whatever that thing is — whoever came up with that s— needs to be fired,” James said. “But whatever.”
The Lakers are now tied for fifth place in the Western Conference standings with Dallas and Portland, meaning one of those three teams will end up in the play-in tournament before the playoffs — the first year the NBA has embraced this level of a play-in tournament they tested in the bubble last year.
At the end of the regular season, the No. 7 and No. 8 teams will play each other, the winner becoming the seventh seed in the West. The loser of that game would then face the winner of a game between the No. 9 and No. 10 teams to secure the final playoff spot as the eighth seed.
“We're not worried about a play-in. At all,” Markieff Morris said two weeks ago. “I don't know when that date is, next month. ... That won't involve us. Getting healthy at the right time, it's perfect for us, man.”
But the return of their stars hasn’t gone smoothly, Anthony Davis struggling to hit shots and James struggling to shake off soreness in his right ankle. The Lakers have lost five of the six games Davis has played since returning from his calf and Achilles injuries and have now dropped three in a row, including the two James played.
The Lakers learned Sunday they’d be without point guard Dennis Schroder because of the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols. It’s unclear when he’ll be able to return, and the team has offered no specifics as to why he’s in the protocols.
It all feels like a little too much déjà vu, players said.
“I think our team is predicated on health. That is the No. 1 thing for our ballclub. We're a team that we need to be healthy and we need to be full,” James said.
“And if it's not one thing, it's the other. And then we show up today and the starting point guard is not in the lineup, so it's like another blow for us. That's going to be the biggest thing for us down the stretch, more than the games that we're playing: just how healthy we're going to be going into the stretch run. “
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.