Is grind finally catching up with listless Lakers?

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Utah Jazz fans: Close your eyes. Hear the music. Remember this moment. The best thing about peaking? You don’t know when it’ll end. You don’t know what the top feels like yet — just that every game takes you closer to it. The increasing accuracy of every Donovan Mitchell pull-up and Mike Conley pocket-pass feels guaranteed to compound and explode into broken records. Victory feels predetermined, growth exponential. The Jazz look vital, wide-eyed, confident, like explorers charting the mountain of their ceiling, the sweat glistening off their faces as proof of constant renewal.

Maybe the climb will take them all the way to a championship. If it does, they will also one day know the malaise that has befallen these Los Angeles Lakers, for whom sweat feels more like a symbol of exhaustion. The Jazz dropped the listless Lakers on Wednesday night, who have now lost four straight.

The Lakers, coming off the shortest offseason in NBA history, are trying to repeat as champions. Only 13 teams have done it before.

Winning once is a process of self-discovery. Winning again is a war against attrition, against injuries, against the exhaustion of having a target on your back, against the spotlight and its expectations, against a lack of excitement that can percolate into a lack of engagement.

James, after playing 43 minutes against the Washington Wizards on Monday, said the idea that he needed more rest was overblown. He insists he can handle the extra burden, even in his 18th season, his 36th year on Earth.

Nobody knows who will win: nature or LeBron, but isn’t that always the battle?

 LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers in action during a game against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena on February 24, 2021 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are in a muck. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Nature has more help than ever. Anthony Davis, who likely wouldn’t have conceded 14 offensive rebounds, is injured. Dennis Schroder, who eases James’ ball-handling responsibilities, is out. The offseason was historically short. The current games are scrunched together.

This all would make for great MVP fodder, but James is going through a rough spell. He says he’s fine, but his play hints of fatigue. His usually immaculate jumper is clanking short and long. Against the Jazz, he missed paint rotations that were staring him in the face and he tended to pass up in transition instead of pushing the ball himself — the cause of a turnover.

The Lakers seemed determined not to have to use him too much. The initial strategy to punish Rudy Gobert for dropping in the paint was to feed Marc Gasol, whose aggression didn’t match his ability enough to carry the offense (one imagines DeMarcus Cousins wouldn’t share his reluctance). James stayed planted on the bench through most of a long, hard second quarter, even after a Lakers timeout. Maybe Kyle Kuzma could get it going? Nope. Gasol hitting cutters? Nothing there.

Early in the third quarter, James briefly conceded to the reality of the burden. He posted up Jazz stopper Royce O’Neal three times in a row, creating an open 3-pointer that rimmed out, free throws for Alex Caruso and his own and-1 drive.

This was one of the only insightful moments of the game. One of the big questions surrounding Utah is its ability to defend superstars one-on-one. The Jazz only got three cracks at responding and doubled heavily. It would have been interesting to see how Jazz coach Quin Snyder, patron saint of effective tiny adjustments, would react to a consistent onslaught.

But then … the Lakers never went back to it. James and his teammates clanked a few more threes and packed it in. If the comeback wasn’t going to come seamlessly, it wasn’t going to come. Whether this was a failure of focus, coaching, effort, or a matter of fatigue, I don’t know. But it makes it hard to predict what’s going to happen next.

Above all, the Lakers aren’t trying hard enough — an issue that can either be fixed in a snap or metastasize into everything else. Neither route is inevitable right now. This is a missive from the middle of the muck, a stenography of the King’s journey in a moment he could use a nap.

“We just hit a rough patch,” James said after the game. “It happens throughout the course of a season. You don’t want it to happen but when it does, you know, I think it defines character, it challenges you and you just get ready for the bounce-back. You learn from tonight, learn from the previous and then get ready for the next one.”

Can the Lakers win another championship? Can James stay healthy? Neither are impossible, just hard. We won’t know until we know. Just like the Jazz will not prove it until they prove it, the Lakers will not lose it until they lose it and James will remain invincible until he isn’t.

At least he didn’t have to play in the fourth quarter.

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