LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — A few uneasy days off the court for LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers were followed by a relatively straightforward win on it, as the Lakers’ 131-122 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday closed out their first-round playoff series 4-1.
As much as Los Angeles’ postseason hopes might have seemed in jeopardy after dropping Game 1 to Portland — at that time the hottest team in the bubble, boasting the seeding round MVP, Damian Lillard — things looked far more dire Wednesday. That was when a unilateral decision by the Milwaukee Bucks to not play their playoff game to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, threatened to derail the entire postseason.
While the Lakers reportedly voted against continuing the season at a contentious meeting involving all 13 teams remaining in the bubble later Wednesday night, James explained his reasoning after the win over the Blazers.
“I’m not here to judge or categorize what Milwaukee did,” he said after putting up 36 points on 14-for-19 shooting, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in Game 5 — marking the second time in his career where he averaged a triple-double for an entire playoff series. “We all stood with them.”
But the Lakers were also caught off guard by the Bucks’ decision. Many members of the Lakers were taking their pregame nap for what was originally scheduled to be Game 5 against Portland on Wednesday when Milwaukee decided it wasn’t going to take the court for its game against the Orlando Magic.
The Lakers held a spur-of-the-moment team meeting and agreed to not play their game, just like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets would not play their game in solidarity with the Bucks.
“From that point on, my mind began to figure out what is the plan going forward, and if we don’t have a plan, then what are we talking about, why are we still here?” James said. “That’s where my mind went to. At one point there was no plan of going forward, there was no plan of action. I’m not, me personally, I’m not that type of guy. I’m not the type of guy who, one, doesn’t have a plan, and then isn’t ready to act on it as far as action, so we had a couple days to kind of figure it out.”
Following a call with former President Barack Obama on Wednesday night, in which Obama urged James and a small group of players to continue the season, but only after securing a commitment to influence social change from the league’s owners, James approached Thursday looking for a path back to playing.
James said the group call he joined with the league owners involved direct dialogue about what could be done.
“They took it very serious, they were very candid, we were very candid on what we continue to believe moves the needle in our respective cities and our communities and how important this moment is,” he said.
Both sides agreed to a three-pronged plan that would allow games to resume: the formation of a social justice coalition, a commitment to use team facilities as voting locations in every NBA city, and the airing of advertisements centered on voting engagement during every playoff telecast.
The players put their trust in the owners to follow through with their commitment.
“All you can do is give me … your word and I’m going to hold that with the utmost respect,” James said.
Anthony Davis, who had 43 points on 14-for-18 shooting and nine rebounds in Game 5, said the players would not hesitate to boycott again if promises were not kept.
“We do have the leverage,” Davis said after he and James became the first pair of teammates to both score 35 points while shooting 70% from the field in a playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. “After the meetings, we’re very confident that they will [hold up their commitment]. The conversations went well. And if they don’t, then we won’t play again. It’s as simple as that. And but I said, after the meetings, it was very powerful, impactful meetings and I think the owners will.”
James, who is now 14-0 all time in the first round of the playoffs, said he never considered ending that streak by leaving the bubble because of the circumstances surrounding Blake — as he said after Game 4, “I got half of my brain locked in on the playoffs and the other half locked in on how the hell I can help Black people become greater in America” — but the isolated grind of the league’s satellite campus has gotten to him.
“I’ve had numerous nights and days when I’ve thought about leaving the bubble. I think everyone has,” he said. “I don’t think there’s not one person that has not had a mind that says, ‘Oh, I got to get the hell out of here.’ … It probably crosses my mind about once a day, for sure.”
Those thoughts will surely persist but won’t cause James to bail on what he refers to as the NBA’s “mission” of trying to promote social programs to enhance racial equality in the United States.
The Lakers might have made history with their first-round win Saturday — securing their first series win as an organization since 2012, and their first without Kobe Bryant on the team since 1995 — but James said he hopes what the league went through this week will signify historic change on a grander scale than just through the lens of sports.
“Only time will tell, but hopefully the past couple days is a change for the greater good of the future,” he said. “When you see change happening in the future, you can look back and say that was the moment when it happened. That was the key moment when it happened.
“Obviously the bubble season would never be forgotten when it comes to sports. This is the first time we’ve been able to do something like this, but obviously, this moment is so much bigger than us playing basketball.”
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