LeBron James was spent.
Removed from the court with about five minutes left in an eventual 116-99 defeat to the Memphis Grizzlies, James planted himself on the edge of the Lakers’ bench at FedExForum.
His hands were clasped between his legs. His head was down.
The two nights that separated James from his most inspirational performance in a Lakers uniform wasn’t sufficient time for him to recover, evidently.
James played on empty Wednesday night, making just five of 17 shots from the field, including one of nine three-pointers. He finished with 15 points. His five turnovers were the most in the game.
“Tonight, I was s—,” James said.
The ageless wonder who powered the Lakers to an overtime victory in Game 4 of this Western Conference series looked every one of his 38 years in Game 5.
With James more resembling a bystander than protagonist, the Lakers’ advantage over the No. 2-seeded Grizzlies was reduced to three games to two.
Late in the regular season, there were indications something like this could happen, as James attempted to play his way back into shape after sitting out four weeks because of a foot injury. Strenuous efforts were followed by games in which he was lethargic, leading to skepticism of whether his body could withstand round after round of physical postseason basketball.
Except looking ahead to a second-round series against the Golden State Warriors or Sacramento Kings suddenly feels premature.
The question James has to answer is more immediate, about whether he will be physically capable of leading the Lakers to a win Friday at Crypto.com Arena in Game 6. Lose there, and the Lakers will have to return to Memphis for Game 7.
“I’ll be better in Game 6,” James said.
Anthony Davis, who scored 31 points and collected 19 rebounds, echoed James’ confidence.
“He’ll get better,” Davis said.
James acknowledged he didn’t know how he would feel Friday.
“It’s two days from now, so no idea,” James said. “Obviously, I’ll take care of my body and try to get as much sleep as I can and see how fast my body can recover to get ready for Friday.”
The recovery process started on this night when the Lakers were behind by 14 points with 4 minutes 40 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
“He and I made eye contact and we had a nonverbal discussion,” coach Darvin Ham said. “It was time. We’re gonna need him big on Friday, so it was time.”
James didn’t have it from the start, the 47 minutes he played in his 22-point, 20-rebound game two night earlier clearly still affecting him.
“He’s feeling it, man,” Ham said on the eve of Game 5.
James scored the Lakers’ first points on an alley-oop, but that turned out to be the only shot he made in the opening quarter, after which the Grizzlies were in front 38-24. The Grizzlies closed the period with a 15-4 run that coincided with time Davis spent on the bench.
James had just six points at the half.
His offensive troubles continued a perplexing trend of Davis playing well when James doesn’t, and James playing well when Davis doesn’t.
James dismissed the suggestion there was a reason for that.
“We just haven’t put together two performances together,” James said. “But we still have put three team efforts together to be up 3-2. That’s what’s important. It’s not about what AD and myself are doing. It’s about how we can win basketball games.”
Well, the team’s role players didn’t play well either. Austin Reaves scored 17 points but made only four of 13 shots. Rui Hachimura sank half of his field goals but finished with only nine points.
The possible exception was D’Angelo Russell, who scored the first eight points of the second half to narrow the Lakers’ deficit to 61-60.
James was responsible for the Lakers’ final stand, as he followed Russell’s run with one of his own. Scoring all nine of his team’s points over a 2:13 span in the third quarter, he kept the deficit at one.
But James was finished and so were the Lakers.
James used to own games like this.
In the 50 closeout games James played before Wednesday night, his team won 39 times. No player in history who played in 25 or more such contests had won as great a percentage of them as James — not Michael Jordan, not Magic Johnson, not Tim Duncan.
Then again, he played only five of those closeout games with the Lakers, when they won the bubble championship.
That was three years ago.
James is now 38.
He has already conquered the calendar once in the series, in the pivotal moments of Game 4. For the Lakers to advance, he’ll have to do so again.
This story originally appeared on LA Times