LeBron James would yawn, often, when the cameras were and weren’t aimed at him. From early in the season, when the Lakers still were trying to tackle to unsolvable problems of last year, until deep into this playoff push, it never was much of a secret.
He was tired.
This was the best argument among plenty of credible ones for why Monday evening would be it, the end to Year 20, the conclusion to a season in which he made history and improbably got his Lakers team to the conference finals.
The year was so long, so mentally exhausting, so physically demanding, that the Lakers and James wouldn’t be able to extend it any longer.
But Monday night, James gave everything, all of the energy that was left in his 38-year-old body. He got his team close. He couldn’t get it any further than that.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic hit the game’s biggest shot while two chances for James couldn’t get converted, and the Nuggets advanced to the NBA Finals with a 113-111 win to sweep the Lakers.
James scored 31 points in the first half, leading the Lakers to a 15-point advantage, and finished with 40. He sat out for about four seconds. He arrived at Crypto.com Arena hours before tipoff while the NBA held a practice run-through for awarding the Nuggets the conference championship trophy for the first time in team history.
“It was a little motivating factor,” James said with a grin.
A foot injury almost cost him his season. But while he recovered, the Lakers rebounded and rebuilt, energizing him with an opportunity to play on this stage — an impossibility to consider when this team started 2-10 or when it found itself in 13th place deep into the season.
“We had a great run, but we fell short of our goal,” James said.
With two chances to tie in the final minute, James couldn’t score on his last two shots. One, a fallaway in the corner at the end of the shot clock, wasn’t close as it bounced off the side of the backboard. Then, on the final play of the Lakers’ season, James drove and tried to muscle up a shot, but Denver’s Jamal Murray played tight defense and Aaron Gordon blocked the driving shot.
“Just trying to get the ball in the hands of our best player and allow him to go make a play in an area on the floor where he’s comfortable,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said.
Jokic, the series most valuable player, finished with 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists, his eighth triple-double of these playoffs, an NBA record.
“You’re always off-balance when you’re guarding a player like that,” James said. “ … There aren’t many guys in our league like that.”
Anthony Davis had a slow start but finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks, though he couldn’t get the stop on Jokic’s go-ahead shot — a brute-force drive that the 284-pound center finished with a cashmere-soft touch for a 113-111 lead with 51 seconds left.
A lineup switch, Ham starting his best unit of the series with James, Davis and Austin Reaves joined by Rui Hachimura and Dennis Schroder, helped key a strong start. And James was sublime, scoring with incredible efficiency and force over 24 near-perfect minutes.
“He came out with the mindset to keep this thing going,” Ham said.
The combination of speed and strength that James possessed on the first day of his rookie season could be seen as he sliced through the Nuggets’ defense. The skill he acquired through countless hours of work was displayed as he held his follow-throughs high and proud while he swished a three. And the luck he had earned from never “cheating the game,” as James likes to say, well, that guided a poorly aimed alley-oop intended for Hachimura into the basket for three points instead.
“He came out on fire,” Davis said of James.
But as good as they were in the first half, the Lakers were at their worst in the third quarter. Just like early in Game 1 and in the fourth quarters of Games 2 and 3, Denver punished the Lakers with spurts of dominance that went unanswered.
The Nuggets were 20 points better than the Lakers in the third quarter, Gordon (22 points) getting hot from three-point range for the first time this series, the latest in a string of role players stepping up to help Jokic and Murray (25 points).
The Lakers’ 15-point halftime lead was replaced with a seven-point Denver advantage.
The Lakers came back, forcing a tie midway through the fourth quarter, but when the ball swung to open shooters like Schroder or Hachimura, neither could connect.
They would get another chance late, but Denver’s execution, like it was in crunch time in each game, always was sharper.
“Nothing short of a really, really, really good basketball team,” Reaves said. “They don’t have holes in their system. They’re not missing anything.”
As the Lakers and James left the arena, they did so with some cryptic messaging about the future. James said it was a “pretty cool ride” and added, “I’ve got a lot to think about to be honest.”
“Just for me personally going forward with the game of basketball,” he said, “I’ve got a lot to think about.”
Davis talked about the sting of losing, especially considering how quickly windows in the NBA slam shut.
“Don’t really do moral victories,” Davis said.
They all left the arena knowing they had been beaten soundly. That Denver deserved the wins, despite the self-inflicted wounds from the Lakers along the way, the missed layups and the lousy transition defense.
Stories have endings. The Lakers extended theirs. But Monday night, the book on this season slammed shut — the extended rest of the offseason awaiting them.