June 3, 2021

Why LeBron James, Lakers Face Uphill Battle in 2021 NBA Championship Run

The 2021 NBA playoffs featured several fun matchups in the first-ever play-in tournament. The most high-profile game, of course, was the Los Angeles Lakers prevailing in a dramatic comeback against the Golden State Warriors.

The Lakers' offense was all out of sorts in the first half of their 103-100 win. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were dreadful from the field, shooting a paltry 3-of-19 in the first 24 minutes. 

But thanks to a hot run and more aggressive offense, the Lakers stormed back. The Warriors' role players cooled off and the better team locked in the Western Conference's seven seed. All it took was a Herculean 34-foot three-pointer from James as the shot clock ran down with 58 seconds left in the game. 

Unfortunately for the Lakeshow, the road doesn't get any easier after surviving a play-in game against the greatest shooter in NBA history in Stephen Curry

In fact, the Lakers' will have a much tougher time repeating as NBA champions this season because of the arduous path they'll have to take to battle the Nets unless somebody in the Eastern Conference can knock them off

They'll hit the road to take on the rising Suns, the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Led by the resurgent Chris Paul and scoring savant Devin Booker, Phoenix — despite being the second seed — are underdogs to the reigning champions. 

DraftKings Sportsbook has the Lakers as -167 series favorites, which is just the fourth-largest line in the first round. This is fair. The Lakers are far from a guaranteed lock against a deeper team with problematic backcourt scorers. The Suns can win the series if the young players continue to play freely and confidently. 

The Suns have no real answer on defense for individual matchups with James and Davis. The Lakers' elite defense will try to funnel the ball into role players' hands and do their best to keep CP3 and Devin Booker from exploding.

If the Lakers can pull off the upset, they might actually have an easier second-round matchup because the Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray after he suffered a season-ending knee injury earlier in the year. Denver would be right there with Brooklyn as a favorite if he was healthy, but they're a tougher team to count on without the perimeter scoring threat. Nikola Jokic has been magical, and his ascension to NBA MVP favorite might be enough for him to overcome Davis' staunch defensive capabilities. 

The Lakers will likely be relieved to see Denver, though, because of the way they match up with the third seed. Drawing the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round would've been the worst-case scenario for the Lakers. 

But LeBron and Co. don't have to worry about seeing both the Clippers and top-seeded Utah Jazz. This is their only reprieve from an otherwise brutal potential pathway. Facing either the Clippers or Jazz, and then a full-strength Nets team in the Finals would be a historic run if the Lakers can pull it off.  

The array of offensive styles would be especially noteworthy. The Lakers don't have an overwhelming offensive cast beyond their two stars and rely on a brute-force attack that free flows from James' ball-handling. It's a recipe that's worked throughout his career but more balanced teams exist this year. The Lakers simply have the misfortune to be in line to play nearly all of them.

Currently, with the best odds to win the Western Conference and second-best odds to win the NBA Finals, it's hard to see the Lakers as a must-buy value. This roster has been missing that something special they found last year and their depth will be tested quickly. James hasn't faced such an uphill climb as far as foes from start to finish since his first stint with Cleveland. 

If the King can once again defy the odds and lead his team to another championship, it'd just be another line on his resume for GOAT-status. 

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration