LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers lost a war of attrition this season

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LeBron James hit one key word multiple times after the Lakers saw their opportunity for back-to-back championships disappear: Draining.

The Suns’ 113-100 win over the Lakers on Thursday night was just the final blow in what has been an exhausting stretch for James, Anthony Davis and the rest of the team. It started after Los Angeles captured the 2020 title in the Florida “bubble” in October. The Lakers had a 71-day break between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 campaigns, the shortest offseason in NBA history.

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They quickly went from being secluded on the NBA’s campus back to the real world, though that presented its own challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The process of following health and safety protocols took its toll on everyone, from players and coaches to executives and trainers.

“I think I always think about just from the moment we entered the ‘bubble’ to now today,” James said. “It’s been draining — mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally draining. . . . Every team has to deal with it, obviously. But with us and Miami obviously going the long haul in the ‘bubble’ and then coming right back on short notice to this season, it’s been very draining.”

Then there were the injuries. When Davis went down in February with an Achilles issue, the Lakers were 21-7 and still had James available, which should have allowed them to survive. Then James suffered a high ankle sprain in March, and the tumble down the standings began. Los Angeles slid to No. 7 in the Western Conference standings, but after the Lakers defeated the Warriors in the play-in round to earn a playoff berth, the prevailing idea was that the squad at full strength could still take down any opponent in a seven-game series.

But then Davis hurt his knee, and later, his groin. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was banged up. The injury bug kept biting all the way up to the final game against the Suns when Alex Caruso suffered an ankle strain and couldn’t return.

“When we were healthy, everyone was available, we had seen the type of team that we can be. . . . We were rolling,” Davis said. “We had the pieces. We just couldn’t stay healthy.”

There were basketball reasons Los Angeles failed to repeat as well. The offseason additions of Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol, Wesley Matthews looked great on paper, but the group never fully meshed before the postseason. Midseason acquisition Andre Drummond didn’t make a major impact. James and Davis didn’t live up to their lofty standards.

It also shouldn’t be lost that the Suns simply outplayed the Lakers. Phoenix showed its impressive regular-season run was no fluke, running Los Angeles out of the gym in Games 5 and 6. James noted that it’s “may the better man win” come playoff time. The Suns were better this time, and that’s why they’re moving on to the conference semifinals.

The Lakers, meanwhile, will head into an offseason that could feature more roster turnover, but more importantly, a chance for everyone to take a break and refill their tanks.

“I just think the whole thing was a challenge, to play all the way into October, and then to start the season as quickly as we did, it was just going to be an uphill battle,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “None of our guys were prepared for training camp, and we tried to grind through it and get our legs under us and get them conditioned the right way. We made moves. The front office made moves.

“We tried to manage and navigate through injuries as a coaching staff, just trying to strike that right balance of keeping guys in there and building them up the right way. Ultimately, the injuries that we faced were just too much.”

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