They were pawns in an international controversy and supporting actors in an unthinkable tragedy. They had their life’s work threatened by a pandemic, only to seize an unprecedented opportunity inside the NBA’s self-constructed bubble.
And even as their superstars battled injuries, the hope that things would be OK once they returned sustained them.
Through all of it, they were remarkably steady, displaying championship-level toughness physically and mentally. But even champions have their limits.
“Our team is a little shook right now,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel acknowledged before Monday’s 93-89 win over Denver.
It was a stunning admission from Vogel, the man who repeatedly has said his team was good enough to win even if LeBron James and Anthony Davis were out, that the Lakers’ depth would carry them through the choppy waters guaranteed by playing a compressed schedule during a pandemic.
Monday night at Staples Center, the frustrations didn’t zap any of the Lakers’ fight, the team missing James and Dennis Schroder and still grinding out a tough win — just their second since April 18.
The losing they had endured was like a hot compress on an abscess, bringing everything to the surface. After losing on Sunday to the out-of-contention Toronto Raptors and watching James exit the game after aggravating the sprained ankle that cost him a month, Lakers players sounded off.
Kyle Kuzma said he thought Vogel should consider playing Marc Gasol. Davis said the Lakers had lost their swagger and needed to start acting like the defending champions. James said none of it would matter if he wasn’t close to 100%.
Oh, and whoever thought up the whole play-in tournament thing? James thinks that person should be fired.
It all happened on a day when Schroder entered the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols. While the team didn’t disclose whether he tested positive, Schroder had told German media that he was unsure about receiving the vaccine in mid-April.