National Basketball Association

LeBron James rips play-in tournament after Lakers continue to struggle

2 days ago

The defending NBA champions are on the defensive ⁠— off the court, at least.

The respective returns of LeBron James and Anthony Davis were supposed to bolster the Los Angeles Lakers as they look to improve their playoff standing in the competitive Western Conference.

Instead, the Lakers have gone 1-5 since Davis came back April 22 and have lost both of their games since James returned Friday.

Sitting at 36-28, the Lakers entered Monday with the same record as the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers.

The Lakers currently hold the No. 6 seed by virtue of tiebreakers, sandwiched by Dallas at No. 5 and Portland at No. 7, but the margins are razor-thin.

One of those three teams will presumably wind up with the 7-seed, which means entry to the NBA's new play-in tournament, rather than joining the main playoff field like in years past.

James is not very fond of that scenario.

After Sunday's 121-114 loss to the 27-38 Toronto Raptors, James didn't hold back with his critique of the play-in format.

"At the end of the day, if I'm not 100 percent, close to 100 percent, it don't matter where we land," James said. "... If we end up at sixth or fifth or whatever the case may be or we end up in the playoff ⁠— whatever that thing is. Whoever came up with that s--- needs to be fired. But whatever."

(Note: Video contains profane language)

As James alluded to, he's still working his way back into form after missing 20 games because of a high ankle sprain.

His highly anticipated return Friday didn't go as planned, ending in a 110-106 loss to the Sacramento Kings.

"The King" scored 16 points in a shade under 32 minutes of work, including seven points in the second half of the contest.

Then came Sunday's loss to the Raptors, in which James put up a very un-LeBron-like 19 points in 27 minutes, 13 of which were scored in the first half.

Making matters worse, James was held out of the game's closing minutes because of soreness in his right ankle. He'll sit out Monday's game against the third-seeded Denver Nuggets as well.

When LeBron went down March 20, the Lakers were 28-14 through 42 games, sitting at No. 2 in the West. Now, a month and a half later, the defending champions are voicing concerns about the play-in tournament. 

As Skip Bayless noted on "Undisputed," James' tune ⁠— and the vibe around the Lakers overall ⁠— has changed drastically. 

On "NBA Game Time," Candace Parker and Greg Anthony pointed to the defensive side of things as the issue most affecting the Lakers' success.

"A lot of the mistakes, it's from rust, but it's also from committing on the defensive end," Parker said. "What has made them so special this year, and especially at the beginning, was the way they defended."

Anthony added to those thoughts, saying the "intensity's not there."

To Shannon Sharpe, while getting stops on defense and LeBron not being 100 percent both are glaring issues, Davis' production is the real concern.

"AD was shooting 53% [from the field] before he left. He's shooting 39%. AD can't play the amount of minutes that he's playing and give them 12 points. He can't do it. He can't play the amount of minutes and give them five, six rebounds."

In six games since coming back from an Achilles injury, Davis is averaging 16.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 29.2 minutes per game.

The Lakers have won one of those games, an 11-point victory against the Orlando Magic, and they lost the rest by an average margin of eight points.

Worst of all for Davis, his combined plus-minus in those six games has been an abysmal minus-56.

Performances aside, as long as the Lakers make the postseason ⁠— play-in or otherwise ⁠— Nick Wright is confident "Playoff LeBron" will show up and get the job done.

He explained his reasoning and chided critics for ignoring James' penchant for turning it on in the playoffs on "First Things First."

The play-in isn't officially a concern for the Lakers yet. If they handle their business or get help from other teams, they could avoid that fate as the No. 6 seed.

That's easier said than done, though, with issues continuing to snowball and a less-than-favorable remaining schedule.

With eight games of their regular season remaining, the Lakers face the fifth-toughest schedule, per Tankathon.com.

And there's little time to regroup and rest, as the Nuggets await Monday.

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