By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
The Los Angeles Lakers are circling the drain.
You could see it in Frank Vogel’s pained facial expression. You could hear it in Russell Westbrook’s clipped responses. You could see it in Anthony Davis’ thousand-yard stare.
But it really hit home with LeBron James’ matter-of-fact analysis. He’s no longer playing the part of the optimist. Not anymore.
“The big picture is it was pretty much a must-win for us, and we did not get the job done,” James said after the Lakers’ 114-111 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday.
That loss likely dashed the Lakers’ playoff hopes.
They’re now one game behind the San Antonio Spurs for the 10th and final spot in the play-in tournament. But since the Spurs own the tiebreaker, the Lakers need to pick up two games on the Spurs to make the tournament, and they only have five games remaining.
Sure, mathematically it’s possible. But in reality, the Lakers are done. We know it. And they do, too.
The Lakers are now 2-9 over their last 11 games, while the Spurs are 7-4. They have a difficult upcoming schedule, with games against the sixth-seeded Denver Nuggets, the top-seeded Phoenix Suns and the third-seeded Golden State Warriors.
“It’s going to be tough to catch this team, obviously, now with the lead they have and the tiebreaker,” Vogel said of the Spurs. “But we have plenty of time to win as many games as we can down the stretch and we’ll see what happens with San Antonio.”
Plenty of time?
Time is pretty much out. The final grains of sand are falling through the hourglass. And not even Vogel’s tempered words of hope could belie the reality displayed all over his taut face and furrowed brow.
This Lakers team is on the fast track to being considered one of the biggest failures in NBA history. A team with five future Hall of Famers that was favored to win the championship likely won’t even make the play-in tournament.
Friday night’s game was filled with anticipation as both James and Davis returned to the lineup following injuries. And while the Lakers fought hard to keep their postseason hopes alive, in the end, it simply was not enough.
There were 13 lead changes and 15 ties in the game. But the Lakers could not score down the stretch, missing six of their last eight shot attempts. With 1.1 seconds left and the Lakers down by three points, 114-111, James had a chance to tie the game but his 26-foot 3-pointer did not even hit the rim.
For Los Angeles, the disappointing ending to the game was a microcosm of its season.
“Just feels like you can’t catch a break,” said James, who had 38 points, eight rebounds and four assists in 39 minutes. “No matter what’s going on, it just feels like the ball bounces the other way. The ball does not always bounce in our favor. Or a call does not go in our favor.”
It’s still shocking that this happened.
When you looked at the court Friday, the disparity between the talent of the Lakers’ roster and their win-record was still hard to reconcile.
Sure, Davis had just returned from a foot injury that had sidelined him for 18 games. And James has missed 21 games this season because of various injuries. But this team consistently had a perennial All-Star on the court in Westbrook, who only missed two games. And James has played so well this season that he’s leading the league in scoring with 30.3 points a game.
It’s hard to comprehend how a team with so much talent, even given the injuries, sits in 11th place in the Western Conference.
When Davis was asked if he thinks things could have played out differently if he had been on the court the last month and a half, he even refused to use that as a justification for his shortcomings short.
“That’s a lot of ifs,” Davis said. “I think we got enough to be able to win basketball games when I’m not on the floor. We got Bron on the floor. We have a roster that’s very talented. We just haven’t been able to put it all together. “
The question is why this team has not been able to put it all together.
The Lakers have been plagued all season by chemistry issues. They tried to laugh off concerns that they were too old before the season began, but their age has shown in their desire. Other teams were hungrier. The Lakers were just a mix of All-Stars that never became a team.
Now, a young San Antonio team is en route to beating them to the play-in tournament. This is a Spurs roster that has one player who has ever made an All-Star appearance, Dejounte Murray, whose first-and-only selection came this season. On the other hand, James, Davis, Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony have 45 All-Star appearances between them.
The Lakers kept hoping they could reverse course this season. They persistently cautioned us that it would take time to reach their potential. But at a certain point, unrealized potential is nothing but empty hope.
For this team, hope has pretty much run out.
Unless they can pull off a near-miracle with five games remaining, this Lakers’ team will fall short of the play-in tournament and the NBA postseason. It’s a shame that James, Davis and Westbrook never became what we all imagined they could be. It’s unfortunate that James’ 19th season has been wasted on mediocrity.
But at a certain point, we have to accept reality.
And the reality is that this Lakers team isn’t what we thought it was.
Not even close.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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