LeBron James had never lost a first-round playoff series … until Thursday night. The second-seeded Suns, led by a 47-point outburst from Devin Booker (who tied an NBA postseason record by draining six three-pointers in the opening quarter), annihilated Los Angeles in Game 6, ending any hopes of a Lakers repeat with a series-clinching 113-100 victory at Staples Center.
The defending champs were doomed from the start with hobbled All-Star Anthony Davis lasting just five minutes before aggravating the groin injury that kept him from suiting up in Game 5. Still running on fumes from the shortest offseason of his career, James was largely a non-factor, connecting on just 11-of-26 shots (42.3 percent) with three turnovers in the losing effort. The 36-year-old didn’t stick around to shake hands with his opponent, making a beeline for the locker room as soon as the final horn sounded.
LeBron snubbing Phoenix reminded many of the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, when Isiah Thomas and the Pistons left the floor without acknowledging the Bulls, who had just swept them in four games, effectively ending Detroit’s dynasty. James pulled essentially the same stunt two nights earlier in Game 5, departing to the locker room with over five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter (the Lakers were getting trampled, trailing 105-73 at the time). LeBron had every reason to be upset, though it wasn’t a great moment for the GOAT, whose judgment was clearly clouded by the emotion of a disappointing series to end one of the most frustrating seasons of his NBA career.
The Lakers’ abrupt postseason exit after qualifying as one of the Western Conference’s two “play-in” teams made them ripe for mockery on social media with many dismissing their title run in 2020 as illegitimate and a product of last season’s unusual circumstances playing in the Orlando Bubble after a four-month COVID hiatus. Twitter trolls seemed to take great pleasure in stomping on L.A.’s grave, derisively calling the Lakers “Mickey Mouse” champions.
Of the four teams that reached the Conference Finals a year ago, only the Nuggets, who knocked off Portland to advance to the Western Conference semis Thursday night, are still standing. Clearly affected by the quick turnaround after playing deep into the playoffs last fall, this year’s Lakers, Celtics and Heat were shells of their 2020 versions, each going out with a whimper (combined 3-12 record this postseason). Boston’s collapse brought wholesale changes to the team’s power structure and it will be interesting to see if the Lakers initiate a similar overhaul after falling well short of expectations in 2021.