Alexander: Could Lakers have repeated under normal circumstances?

Championship DNA, for whatever it’s worth, doesn’t guarantee good health.

The Lakers might have been able to boast the former, the outgrowth of last season’s championship run in the bubble. But the latter failed them throughout this mad scramble of a shortened, compressed NBA season. And yes, when it comes to writing the story of the Lakers’ 2020-21 season, and the bid to repeat that fell short, there is blame to be laid and it’s not all internal.

That story ended Thursday night with a 113-100 elimination game loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the first round, and it figured that the most important game of the season revolved around the injury report. Even then, good news turned out to be not so good after all.

After a couple of days of uncertainty, the Lakers received a blast of hope when Anthony Davis was deemed available to play before the game … only to have it doused when the All-Star big man limped off for good less than 5½ minutes into the game, his strained left groin making it impossible to continue after he’d visibly labored whenever he tried to run or jump.

The moment of truth came when Davis pursued the Suns’ Devin Booker on a drive to the basket, jumped … and came down awkwardly and agonizingly. Davis bent over in obvious pain, then limped to the sideline and plopped to the floor, head bowed in disappointment. Moments later he went to the locker room for treatment, and by halftime, the obvious had become official: He would not be returning.

Davis, of course, had provided the first clue that this Lakers season was going to be a grind when he limped off the court on Valentine’s Day night in Denver with the calf strain felt throughout Southern California. Davis missed 30 consecutive games with that injury and 36 all told in the regular season, hyperextended his left knee in Game 3 of the Suns series, then suffered the Grade 1 strain of his left groin in Game 4 on Sunday while trying to play through the knee issue. And yes, the knee injury led to the groin injury.

That in itself was a microcosm of what turned out to be a brutal end of the season, with Davis and LeBron James missing extensive time and a team that started out 21-6 and was seemingly in a great position to repeat suddenly having to battle for its playoff life.

It’s probably no coincidence that the Lakers and Miami, the last teams standing in the Orlando bubble last October, were also among the first ones gone this spring. With a short offseason followed by a 72-game schedule crammed into 146 days, with few off days, little time for real practices and an array of continuing COVID-19 protocols and restrictions … well, what did you expect?

“From the moment we entered the bubble to now, today, it’s been draining,” said James, a 36-year-old four-time league MVP. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally draining.”

The short offseason disrupted players’ routines, Davis noted, and “all around the league, guys didn’t handle that very well. … You usually take about a month or so off and you still have six weeks weight room training, and then you have another month, month and a half for on-court (work). We didn’t get that.”

Lakers coach Frank Vogel acknowledged that “none of our guys were prepared for training camp, and we tried to grind through it and get our legs under us,” another reminder that there’s a good reason why, under normal circumstances, players are expected to be in condition when camp begins.

The first-round series with the Suns finished with the No. 2 seed doing what it should do to a No. 7 seed. At 51-21 in the regular season, Phoenix was only one game behind Utah for the league’s best record, and the Suns might be capable of going the distance assuming future Hall of Famer Chris Paul gets his health back.

But Vogel had every right to wonder what if.

“This is a matchup, if we’re whole, that should probably take place in the conference finals,” he said. “But obviously the regular season was what it was with the injuries, and we slipped. I would like to see what our group could have done against this team if we were at full strength. But we weren’t. That’s sports. You gotta do the best you can and make the best of it.”

Not even James, with his personal streak of winning elimination games and his record of never having been knocked out in the first round in 14 previous tries, could save the day here. Then again, what was once a 29-point Phoenix lead in the first half was whittled to 10 late in the third quarter, thanks to a rally by a small lineup featuring LeBron at center.

“I was talking to Wes (Wesley Matthews) in the locker room just a few minutes ago, and I said the one thing that bothers me more than anything was we never really got an opportunity to see our team at full strength, either because of injury, or COVID, or something going on with our ballclub this year,” James said. “We could never fully get into a rhythm and never really kind of see the full potential of what we were capable of.”

That said, the Lakers’ early exit also means a full summer of rest, recovery and preparation. James seemed to indicate he’d skip the Olympics (while throwing in a sly plug for the “Space Jam” sequel coming out this summer).

Point guard Dennis Schröder put it another way, more colorfully than can be fully quoted in this publication, but the gist of it was: “You’ve got to get through the (garbage) to get to the good (stuff).”

If that’s true, wait until next year.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Still perfect: Team LeBron wins 2021 NBA All-Star Game

 

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of Team James is presented the MVP award after his team defeated Team Durant in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Stephen Curry #30 and Lebron James #23 of Team James react during the first half against Team Durant in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Luka Doncic #77 of Team James is defended by Kyrie Irving #11 of Team Durant in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • James Harden #13 of Team Durant and Chris Paul #3 of Team James battle for the ball during the first half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • James Harden #13 of Team Durant handles the ball on offense against Team James during the first half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Zach LaVine #8 of Team Durant is defended by Chris Paul #3 of Team James during the first half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Nikola Vucevic #9 of Team Durant attempts a jump shot against Team James during the first half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Donovan Mitchell #45 of Team Durant is defended by Jaylen Brown #7 and Chris Paul #3 of Team James during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of Team James attempts a jump shot against Team Durant during the first half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Kawhi Leonard #2 of Team Durant looks on against Team James in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Zach LaVine #8 of Team Durant attempts a lay up against Team James during the first half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Lebron James #23 of Team James reacts against Team Durant in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Donovan Mitchell #45 of Team Durant is defended by Jaylen Brown #7 of Team James during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Chris Paul #3 of Team James is defended by Kyrie Irving #11 of Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Adam Silver Commissioner of the NBA looks on during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of Team James drives to the basket against Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Stephen Curry #30 of Team James attempts a three point basket against Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry celebrates after scoring during the first half of basketball’s NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, Sunday, March 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Head coach Doc Rivers of Team LeBron looks on against Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of Team James and Jayson Tatum #0 of Team Durant battle for the ball during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of Team James and Jayson Tatum #0 of Team Durant battle for the ball during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry plays during the first half of basketball’s NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, Sunday, March 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

  • Damian Lillard #0 of Team James attempts a lay up against Kyrie Irving #11 of Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Bradley Beal (L) of Team Durant dunks the ball during the 70th NBA All-Star Game against team LeBron James at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia on March 7, 2021. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Bradley Beal #3 of Team Durant reacts against Team James during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Paul George #13 of Team LeBron handles the ball on offense against Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving guards Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis during the first half of basketball’s NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, Sunday, March 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

  • LeBron James of Team LeBron James attemps to dunk the ball during the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia on March 7, 2021. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James smiles during the first half of basketball’s NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, Sunday, March 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

  • Head coach Doc Rivers of Team Durant speaks with his team during the second half against Team James in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving dunks during the second half of basketball’s NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, Sunday, March 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

  • Rudy Gobert (C) of Team LeBron James dunks the ball during the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia on March 7, 2021. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 and Nikola Jokic #15 of Team LeBron celebrate against Team Durant during the first half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Zach LaVine of Team Durant drives to the basket during the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia on March 7, 2021. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Bradley Beal (R) of Team Durant drives to the basket as teammate Kawhi Leonard (L) and Nikola Jokic of Team LeBron James look on during the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia on March 7, 2021. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Damian Lillard #0 of Team James against Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Damian Lillard #0 of Team James celebrates against Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James celebrates during the first half of basketball’s NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, Sunday, March 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

  • Kyrie Irving (L) of Team Durant drives to the basket during the 70th NBA All-Star Game against team LeBron James at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia on March 7, 2021. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Damian Lillard of Team LeBron James dunks the ball during the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia on March 7, 2021. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Damian Lillard #0 of Team James celebrates against Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Zach LaVine (L) of Team Durant drives to the basket during the 70th NBA All-Star Game against team LeBron James at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia on March 7, 2021. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Rudy Gobert (2nd R) of Team LeBron James attemps a shot against Team Durant during the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia on March 7, 2021. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Kawhi Leonard #2 of Team Durant handles the ball against Team LeBron during the first half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Rudy Gobert (C) of Team LeBron James holds to the ball against Team Durant during the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia on March 7, 2021. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Stephen Curry (R) of Team LeBron James is defended by Kyrie Irving (C) of Team Duncan during the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia on March 7, 2021. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Kawhi Leonard #2 of Team Durant is introduced prior to the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: A general view of State Farm Arena during the 70th NBA All-Star Game between Team LeBron and Team Durant on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Gladys Knight performs the national anthem prior to the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Lebron James #23 of Team LeBron stands for the national anthem prior to the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Lebron James #23 of Team LeBron is introduced prior to the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Jayson Tatum #0 of Team Durant is defended by Nikola Jokic #15 of Team LeBron during the first half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Lebron James #23 of Team LeBron dunks the ball against Team Durant in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of Team LeBron handles the ball on offense against Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of Team LeBron celebrates a basket against Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of Team LeBron celebrates a basket against Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Lebron James #23 of Team LeBron celebrates against Team Durant during the first half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Donovan Mitchell #45 of Team Durant is defended by Jaylen Brown #7 and Chris Paul #3 of Team LeBron during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Kyrie Irving #11 of Team Durant dunks the ball against Team LeBron during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Rudy Gobert #27 of Team LeBron attempts a lay up against Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Luka Doncic #77 of Team LeBron attempts a jump shot against Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Donovan Mitchell #45 of Team Durant is defended by Jaylen Brown #7 of Team LeBron during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Stephen Curry #30 of Team LeBron is defended by Kyrie Irving #11 of Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Stephen Curry #30 of Team James celebrates against Team Durant during the second half in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 07: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of Team James is presented the MVP award after his team defeated Team Durant in the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo hols up the trophy after basketball’s NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, Sunday, March 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of Team LeBron plays with his son, Liam Charles Antetokounmpo, prior to the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • New York Knicks center Julius Randle gets a hug from his son Kyden during basketball’s NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, Sunday, March 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

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ATLANTA — In the midst of a pandemic, this was assured of being an NBA All-Star Game like no other.

The stands were mostly empty. The crowd noise was largely piped in. There were no A-list celebrities sitting courtside. Two players had to sit out after getting haircuts.

But in the end, it had a familiar feel.

Team LeBron won again.

Knocking down shots from all over the court, LeBron James’ powerhouse squad closed the first half with a dominating run to set up a 170-150 romp over Team Durant in the league’s 70th midseason showcase Sunday night.

The top vote-getters in each conference have picked the teams the last four years, a duty that James has earned every season.

He’s now 4-0, having defeated Steph Curry’s squad in 2018 and teams selected by Milwaukee’s two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo the previous two years.

This time, James drafted his two former adversaries and blew away Kevin Durant’s team.

“I think he’s got a future as a GM,” said Damian Lillard, another of James’ inspired selections. “He always gets it right.”

Antetokounmpo was the game’s MVP after shooting 16 of 16 for 35 points, even making all three of his attempts beyond the 3-point stripe. It was the most baskets without a miss in All-Star Game history.

“I’m just having fun,” the Greek star, who banked in several of his shots. “Sometimes when you’re having fun and not thinking about the outcome, you just let your instincts take over.”

“You know, usually it is closed (on Sundays),” Antetokounmpo said, smiling when asked about the bank-shots, “but for me, it was open extended hours.”

Curry chipped in with 28 points, while Lillard had 32.

James spent most of the night admiring his drafting skill from the bench. The Lakers star played less than 13 minutes, scored just four points, and didn’t return to the court in the second half.

Instead, he munched a snack on the bench.

“I know he was managing his minutes tonight,” Curry said. “We had a great time, representing him as captain. It was a memorable night for sure.”

It sure was for Curry, the Golden State star who won the 3-point competition beforehand, then went 8 for 16 from beyond the arc in the game.

Lillard matched him, also going 8 for 16 from beyond the arc.

This All-Star Game sure was different than the previous 69.

Determined to pull off an exhibition that is huge for TV revenue and the league’s worldwide brand, the league staged the game in a mostly empty downtown arena, a made-for-TV extravaganza that was symbolic of the coronavirus era.

Despite extensive safety protocols in place, two players didn’t even make it to tipoff. Philadelphia stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were ruled out because they got haircuts from a barber who tested positive for COVID-19.

The only good thing for Durant: He didn’t have to participate in this shellacking, sitting out the game with an ailing hamstring.

Washington’s Bradley Beal, the NBA’s leading scorer this season at 32.9 ppg, led Team Durant with 26 points.

On a night highlighting Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Team LeBron swept the first three quarters and cruised to the final target score, earning a total of $750,000 for its charity, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

The game got out of hand late in the second quarter.

With scant defense being played, Team LeBron took turns dunking off alley-oop passes. Chris Paul delivered back-to-back lobs that Lillard and Curry slammed through. Then, it was Paul on the receiving end of a payback pass from Curry.

After showing it could handle shots up close, Team LeBron headed outside in the final seconds of the half.

Lillard pulled up for a 3-pointer from the midcourt line. Not to be outdone, Curry knocked down one from virtually the same spot.

“It was a lot of fun,” Lillard said. “Me and Steph shoot a lot of 3s. We shoot deep 3s. It was 3, 3, 3, 3, 3.”

The Clippers’ Paul George had 17 points for Team LeBron, going 5 for 7 from 3-point range in 26 minutes. His Clippers teammate, Kawhi Leonard, had eight points, nine rebounds and eight assists in 20 minutes for Team Durant.

Amid the joyful moments, the atmosphere at State Farm Arena was downright eerie compared to a normal All-Star Game.

Instead of a packed house, with A-list celebrities crammed into prime courtside seats, this game was attended by a smattering of hand-picked guests. They had plenty of room to spread out in a 17,000-seat venue that was essentially transformed into a giant television studio, with socially distanced spectators kept far from the court.

Towering video screens were set up behind the benches. Vegas-style lights flashed around the arena. Recorded crowd noise blared over the sound system. The entertainment was provided by the host Atlanta Hawks, who didn’t have any players in the game but were represented by their cheerleaders, drum line and DJ.

To address fears that one of its biggest events would become a super-spreader for a virus that has killed more than a half-million Americans, the NBA pared down its usual weekend-long ritual of extravagant parties, gridlocked streets and people watching

This All-Star Game was a one-night-only event, with a pair of skill competitions held shortly before the game and the Dunk Contest squeezed into the halftime break. The players flew in Saturday afternoon and were largely confined to a nearby hotel except for their time on the court.

“This is when everyone in basketball all over the world comes to one city,” James said before the game. “We’re able to sit back and go, ‘Wow, this is the game we have built.’ It’s a beautiful weekend for all walks of life, on the floor and off the floor.

“But I’m sitting here in my hotel room, isolated. My family’s not here. I’m by myself. It’s just different, to say the least, compared to previous years.”

TIP-INS

Team Durant: Zion Williamson of New Orleans started the game in place of Embiid. The Pelicans forward had 10 points. … Durant’s team heaved up 72 3-pointers, but made only 27 (37.5%).

Team LeBron: Paul had 16 assists, passing Magic Johnson’s record for most career All-Star assists with 128. … Lillard ended the game with another long 3-pointer. Curry was waving to the spectators before it even went in. … James’ team shot 63.6% from the field, including 31 for 61 from 3-point range.

UP NEXT

The 71st All-Star Game will be held on Feb. 20, 2022 in Cleveland. The 2023 game is set for Salt Lake City, followed by Indianapolis in 2024.

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Organization founded by LeBron James and other Black athletes turns focus to fighting GOP-backed bills restricting voter access

By Dan Merica | CNN

The political organization founded by NBA superstar LeBron James and a host of other Black athletes and artists will kick off its post-2020 work with a focus on the wave of Republican-backed legislation aimed at restricting voter access in the wake of the latest presidential election.

More Than A Vote will use the 2021 NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta to draw attention to recent efforts by Republican lawmakers in Georgia to make it harder for people to vote by pushing for restrictive election laws. The group is kicking off a campaign named Protect Our Power, which, in addition to fighting these laws in states across the country, will look to mobilize Black voters in off-year and municipal elections.

The new program will be punctuated by a new ad campaign voiced by James himself, in which the NBA icon argues that the success his group and others had at registering and turning out voters during the 2020 election led directly to Republicans looking to make it more difficult to vote.

“Look what we did. Look what we made happen. What our voices made possible,” James says as images and video of activism ahead of the 2020 elections plays. “And now, look what they’re trying to do to silence us. Using every trick in the book. And attacking democracy itself. Because they saw what we’re capable of and they fear it.”

He adds: “So this isn’t the time to put your feet up or to think posting hashtags and black squares is enough. Because for us, this was never about one election. It’s always been More Than A Vote. It’s a fight that’s just getting started. And we’ve been ready. You with us?”

The group said that a 30-second cut of the ad will premier during coverage of the All-Star Game on Sunday. The ad will be part of a broader focus on voting rights during the All-Star Game — the group announced earlier in the week that they have partnered with the NBA and the players union to highlight attacks on voting around the game.

“We are in a position to let the world know and, in particular, let people who are new to the process or not as engaged with politics know, that these fights around voter suppression don’t just take place during an election year,” said Addisu Demissie, the executive director of More Than A Vote.

Michael Tyler, a spokesman for the group, added that they want to make clear that while “there has been a change of leadership at the federal level, in order to secure lasting justice, people have to maintain a sense of engagement at the local and state level year in and year out.”

A secondary goal for the group is to signal to people that the kind of activism they saw from athletes during former President Donald Trump’s administration would not be ending with his loss.

“We called ourselves more than a vote for a reason,” said Demissie. “This is us planting the flag that athletes being activists is not just going to stop because the 2020 election cycle is over.”

Republican lawmakers, spurred on by Trump’s repeated false claims about fraud in the 2020 election, have begun to push restrictive voting changes across the country, with the Republican State Leadership Committee leading the charge to roll back provisions that expanded the vote in key states. The group claims their aim is to “restore the American people’s confidence in the integrity of their free and fair elections” by “making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” parroting Trump’s baseless claims.

The Brennan Center for Justice found last month that more than 250 bills aimed at limiting voter access have been filed since the election.

More Than A Vote will begin with a focus on Georgia, a state that became a leading battleground after Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential nominee since 1992 to win there in November and both US Senate elections were won by Democrats in January. The group will partner with Black Voters Matter Fund, Fair Fight Action, Georgia NAACP and the New Georgia Project.

The plan, said group organizers, is to expand work done in Georgia to other states where stricter voting laws may be passed, including Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona.

“Black and brown voters changed the game in 2020, so in response, lawmakers are trying to change the rules in 2021,” said Renee Montgomery, a WNBA player who opted to forgo the 2020 season to focus on social justice. Montgomery became a More Than A Vote member and is now a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, her former team.

“We know that as athletes and as leaders we have to keep our foot on the gas to protect our power, preserve and expand our voting rights, and to continue turning moments into momentum,” she said. “More Than a Vote is just getting started.”

More Than A Vote was founded in the run-up to the 2020 election, providing James and others with a vehicle to help register Black voters and turn them out in the November election. The group currently boasts dozens of professional athletes and artists as members, including NFL quarterback Patrick Mahomes, American tennis star Sloane Stephens and comedian Kevin Hart.

James has long been one of the nation’s most politically active and outspoken athletes and he used his platform to routinely criticize Trump. The basketball star recently got into a spat with Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who said athletes like James should stay out of politics.

James responded by saying he would “never shut up about things that are wrong” and that there is “no way I would ever just stick to sports, because I understand how powerful this platform and my voice is.”

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

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Whicker: Lakers get into the spirit of this cut-and-dried Christmas

Next time the NBA fills up Christmas Day with basketball, make sure batteries are included on both sides.

The Lakers could have played in their stockings and won this one over Dallas. Their 138-115 victory followed Miami’s 13-point stroll past New Orleans, Milwaukee’s 39-point embarrassment of Golden State, and Brooklyn’s ominous 28-point waltz in Boston.

It’s not unusual to have Christmas games serve as background music instead of actual dramatics, and it wouldn’t be bad, either, if this were a year when the family could gather ‘round. Although the players aspire to get network exposure, they’re as protective of their special days as anybody else. When one team falls behind, it’s easier to punt its best effort to a more secular occasion.

But you can’t blame the NBA for playing as many games as it can whenever it can, seeing what might be awaiting as the winter deepens. On Friday, the Lakers just had fun matching up their new ornaments.

This was the Lakers’ highest-scoring performance since Dec. 8 of last year, when Anthony Davis put 50 points and they throttled Minnesota 142-125. They certainly weren’t offensively challenged in their championship season, but they can score far easier in their half-court offense with Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schröder in the crew, especially if Kyle Kuzma keeps looking this good.

Harrell, Schröder and Kuzma shot 23 for 35 against the Mavericks, and Harrell’s five offensive rebounds helped the Lakers outscore Dallas 35-0 on second-chance opportunities, which hasn’t happened in the NBA since such records were kept.

Their strong push meant Davis could work fewer than 31 minutes and LeBron James fewer than 32, a rest they earned after a strong first quarter.

“Five or six guys are able to come in and get you 20,” Kuzma said. “We’ve got guys ready to come in and take a game over.”

It might be the closest thing to a shadow starting lineup since 1984, when Pat Riley often began games with Bob McAdoo, Jamaal Wilkes, Michael Cooper and Mitch Kupchak sitting beside him. Here, the Laker reserves scored 55 points and sank 10 of 16 3-point shots.

Nobody actually wants to see the Lakers experiment with this, but if James or Davis had to miss extended time, couldn’t they still finish high in the West? One would assume Jalen Horton-Tucker, among others, would eat up those available minutes, and we’ve barely seen the tip of Wesley Matthews’ game in this 1-1 start.

“I can see, with this team, that I can go into the lane and put pressure on the other team,” said Schröder, who left no doubt that he would be thrilled to sign a contract extension “as long as it’s fair for both sides.

“When I do that, nobody is really helping,” Schroder added. “Everybody else on the court draws a lot of attention.”

The Mavericks (0-2) got 27 points and seven rebounds from Luka Doncic, but they needed more, or at least needed him to do it differently. Coach Frank Vogel had Schröder guard Doncic much of the time and then called in bigger helpmates when the shot clock began dwindling.

Doncic was only 7 for 16 in the first three quarters, and Vogel was pleased the Lakers kept him from digging in at the 3-point line. He went 2 for 4 from deep, and had only four rebounds.

“You try not to overhelp and open up the 3-point game for all their guys,” Vogel said. Add the Mavericks’ 13-for-32 shooting on longballs, and those are winning numbers against the preseason favorite for league Most Valuable Player.

“I guarded Luka quite a bit when I was in Oklahoma City,” Schröder said. “We did a great job of putting him under pressure in the beginning, although we slipped a little bit later.

“I gotta play defense because it gets me into my offense. I think it’s 60, 70 percent of my game. If I play 94 feet with energy, my teammates can see that we’re all into it. That’s what I’ve done my whole career.”

Harrell is also doing the same things that earned him the league’s top Sixth Man award last year, an honor for which Schröder contended as well.

“The only thing to say about him (Harrell) is that he catches everything and he scores everything,” Vogel said, smiling. “We’re trying to give our depth enough reps, and trying to manage LeBron, but it started tonight with LeBron and AD playing at a high level.”

As they know each other better, the Lakers probably will give you lots of nights like this, lots of games that get wrapped up earlier than your gifts probably were.

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Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo applauds LeBron James’ performance

LOS ANGELES — With all the electricity of a playoff game, the NBA’s Western and Eastern Conference leaders – and their respective leading men – clashed Friday night at Staples Center in what might have been a preview of the NBA Finals.

The case of LeBron James vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo tilted in favor of the home team this time, with James rallying his squad from a nine-point, first-half deficit to a playoff-clinching 113-103 victory at the Milwaukee Bucks’ expense.

Afterward, the Bucks superstar stood facing a media scrum, his lip bloodied, his squad having lost for just the 10th time all season and his mind made up: His knee, which buckled badly in the second half was “good,” he insisted.

The 25-year-old reigning league MVP scored 32 points in the loss, two fewer than he’d scored in the teams’ last meeting, a 111-104 Milwaukee victory in December.

On Friday the 6-foot-11 power forward/point guard/small forward/shooting guard went 10 for 21 from the field and 11 for 14 from the free-throw line, grabbed 11 rebounds and added six assists and a steal – but the Bucks were outscored by 11 points when he was on the floor.

On the other end, James – who was serenaded with “M-V-P” chants by a partisan crowd – asserted himself as if he wanted to spark, or perhaps settle, a debate.

James entered Friday’s affair averaging 25.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 10.7 assists per game and having led the Lakers back to the precipice of a playoff berth for the first time since 2013.

Antetekounmpo showed up for work Friday averaging 29.6 points and 13.8 rebounds per game, his 3-point shooting having improved to 30.9 percent from 25.6 last season – helped a bit by his career-high five 3-pointers against the Lakers last time.

“He’s lights out, in all ways,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said pregame of the seventh-year star. “He keeps working on his 3-point shot and his ability to hurt you that way. He … puts a lot of pressure on your defense, (he’s) difficult to guard, great defensively one-on-one, great defensively in weak-side situations.

“He’s been good.”

James, of course, has won three championships in his 17 NBA seasons, and harbors hopes of earning a fourth this season. Antetekounmpo would like this season to earn his first championship – and to thwart James’ desire to do it again.

That bubbling push-and-pull made for compelling theater Friday, even for someone as close to the action as Vogel.

“I enjoy it, all of us coaches, we’re still fans of the game, you know,” Vogel said. “We like to see the best go against the best, and these types of matchups that I’m fortunate to be a part of, get a front-row seat and hopefully can help our superstars beat their superstars.”

Vogel got his wish: His 35-year-old forward/point guard scored 37 points, got to the free-throw line 15 times (making 12 foul shots), grabbed eight rebounds, and recorded seven assists and three steals to lead the Lakers (48-13) past Antetekounmpo’s squad, which was bothered by the Lakers’ length and unable to recover from a 31-17 disparity in free throws.

Even in defeat, Antetekounmpo applauded James’ performance.

“It’s always good playing against one of the best players in the league, like you can feel whenever you bring the ball down, whenever you go against him, you can feel greatness,” said Antetekounmpo, who remained in the game Friday despite his scary fall. “He’s gonna come at you and you gotta be ready to go, gotta be ready to fight against him. … At the end of the day, he’s gonna get his shots up, he’s gonna get his teammates involved. He’s LeBron James, what can you say?”

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Lakers, Clippers take center stage as NBA season tips off

The dress rehearsals are over. Tuesday night, one of the most anticipated seasons in recent NBA history tips off, and the Lakers and Clippers, intracity rivals who underwent headline-grabbing offseason changes, find themselves on the short list of contenders for the 2019-20 championship going into their season opener at Staples Center.

Neither side will be at full strength on Tuesday, the Clippers without All-Star forward Paul George and the Lakers without rising young star Kyle Kuzma, but it’s still a game that should give each side an early indication of how they might measure up and how they might go about countering certain matchups.

Having landed two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and George in one stunning July night, the Clippers open the season as the prohibitive favorite to win their first league title, both according to oddsmakers in Las Vegas and the annual poll of NBA general managers. When George returns, they’ll become a team with frightening potential on defense, especially on the perimeter.

The Lakers got four-time league MVP LeBron James the elite running mate he wanted, shipping away a slew of players and draft picks to unite him with big man Anthony Davis amid the hope that their mutual desire to play together results in unbeatable chemistry on the court. Even if it takes them some time to gel, a refreshed James knows it’s all about positioning themselves to be at their best in April, May and June.

SCNG beat reporters Kyle Goon and Mirjam Swanson have been covering both teams since before those seismic roster changes, and they’ve spent the months since writing about a variety of topics, giving our readers a chance to get to know some of the personalities who will take center stage this season, and the challenges both sides might face along the way.

Before that first jump ball is tossed, here’s another chance to catch up on some of what you might have missed:

LAKERS

• United with the teammate they both publicly wished for, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are expected to have each other’s backs as Lakers teammates, sharing the workload while holding each other accountable.

• Father Time, as the saying goes, is undefeated. The question for LeBron James – and for a Lakers franchise hoping his championship window is still open – is how long can he stave off the inevitable?

• How Coach Frank Vogel’s “sabbatical” year spent visiting college and NBA coaches around the nation rejuvenated him for the Lakers job

• Entering his third season, ambitious young Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma has switched agencies, signed a shoe deal and is looking out for additional business opportunities.

• With both teams in demand for national TV appearances, the NBA and Staples Center had a tougher time than ever mapping out the schedules for the Lakers and Clippers

Lakers play down rivalry angles going into opener against Clippers

• In his second stint with the Lakers, Dwight Howard promises more accountability

• Veteran guard Avery Bradley is eager to prove himself, ready to “show the world that I’m the best perimeter defender in the NBA.”

• LeBron James and the Lakers have been doing their best to make Anthony Davis feel comfortable and in control going into a critical season

• The Lakers have plenty of competition in their guard rotation

• Anthony Davis, Lakers believe having multiple shot-blockers will aid their identity

• A closer look at the Lakers’ projected roster, including two-way contract players

CLIPPERS

• In Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers have added a self-made superstar who keeps getting better

• Can the Clippers seize their moment and challenge the Lakers for L.A.’s basketball soul?

• The Lakers and Clippers in contention at the same time has the eyes of the league on L.A.

• Against the Clippers’ defense this season, the drive to Staples Center might be the easy part

• Is there any reason to doubt, L.A.’s clearly a basketball town?

• Given their decades of futility and mismanagement, it’s hard for some to fathom … the Clippers favored to win a championship?

• When three-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams speaks, his words carry weight

• Clippers hope a “brotherhood” built through group texts, fishing trips and paintball outings will prepare them for whatever adversity comes their way

• Clippers rookie Terance Mann is soaking up his time around Kawhi Leonard, Paul George

• Patrick Beverley wants you to know: Kawhi Leonard is cool but he’s “not quiet”

• The Clippers plan to retain the gritty team persona that helped attract a pair of All-Stars

• Patrick Beverley is the face of a new Clippers ticket initiative that will give between 50 and 200 fans an opportunity to purchase $10 tickets for all 41 of the team’s home games this season.

• A closer look at the Clippers’ projected roster, including two-way contract players

AROUND THE LEAGUE

STACKED OUT WEST: Beyond the Lakers and Clippers, Houston reunited James Harden with Russell Westbrook. Denver and Utah bring back strong cores, Portland might have the league’s best backcourt, and Golden State doesn’t sound ready to go away, even if the Warriors will have to wait a while to get Klay Thompson back. Here’s a team-by-team preview of the Western Conference.

TWO-TEAM RACE IN EAST? Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks were a couple wins from beating Toronto. The Philadelphia 76ers were perhaps a couple bounces from doing it one round earlier. Neither team was good enough to finish the job last season, but both think this is their time after Leonard returned to the Western Conference. They look like the favorites to represent the East in the NBA Finals – where they might have to deal with Leonard again. Here’s a team-by-team preview of the Eastern Conference.

CRACKING DOWN ON FAN BEHAVIOR: After high-profile incidents involving Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Lowry and others last season – including ones involving racist taunts – zero tolerance for abusive or hateful behavior is now to become the NBA’s policy going forward. The league is changing and toughening its code of conduct for fans, especially putting those in closest proximity to the players and the court on alert that anything over the line will lead to ejections and possibly more.

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Video: JuJu Smith-Schuster is excited for LeBron James to play for the Los Angeles Lakers

JuJu Smith-Schuster, a former Long Beach Poly and USC football player, is ready to become a Los Angeles Lakers’ season ticket holder after sharing his excitement about the acquisition of LeBron James.

The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver also shared his love for video games and comments on his Madden rating at the NFL Sunday Ticket Party in Los Angeles.

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(Video also features a cameo from WWE’s Lana.)

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