He is the Man of Steel, the guy with the cape, a super human posturing as a normal human being during a 16-year NBA career defined, like Festivus in the Costanza household, by its feats of strength.
But when push comes to shove, or step devolves to slip, Lebron James is just like any other guy. He has groin muscles.
We may not have noticed until Christmas night when Lebron strained his left groin in the third quarter of the Los Angeles Lakers win over the Golden Warriors.
We watched him fall, as we frequently have. The only difference was he didn’t rise and speed away like he usually does. He hobbled. He stopped. He even grimaced. He headed for the locker room.
There was an initial diagnosis: Lebron was in “good spirits” with an added accoutrement – his recovery was considered-day-day, pending MRI results that might give the Lakers reason to pause.
And when we said pause, we were explicitly discussing the state of the Lakers season. The feeling was the wheels of their bus would not go ‘round and ‘round if he’s not driving it.
That reality seems to be happening. What was originally considered a day-to-day inconvenience and has turned into a week-to-week dilemma. And the Lakers are tanking.
The Lakers announced late last week that James will miss at least one more week with what is now being described as a “significant” groin strain. And that’s not when he’s expected back. That’s when he will be re-examined.
On Sunday, the Lakers dropped to 1-5 without James by getting blasted by Minnesota, 108-86. Outside L.A, the game will be remembered as Tom Thibodeau’s last as T-Wolves coach. He was canned immediately after it.
In L.A., the bullet points include shooting only 36.8 percent from the field. They have made only 31.9 percent of their threes since The King went off-tour. They look rudderless, and with good reason. They have lost their rudder.
Making matters worse for the Lakers, if that’s even possible, is that second-leading scorer Kyle Kuzma also missed his second straight game with a back contusion. After missing 17 games earlier this season with a broken hand, Rajon Rondo is also out again indefinitely after finger surgery in December.
All of sudden, the Lakers are 21-19, in eighth place in the Western Conference and just three games ahead of New Orleans, which is seeded 14th.
“We’ve got to play with some passion and fire,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton. “It’s hard to win in this league when you are healthy. You’ve got to give double that effort when guys are down.”
James did practice a little last Tuesday, cameras clicking with every bounce, since it was his first time on the floor since the injury.
“We got to get him healthy,” said Walton on Friday. “We talk all year, we need everyone on our team. You don’t want anyone to get hurt. That’s how the NBA season plays out. We’re down in bodies. It’s gonna be a challenge, but our guys should be excited for that. We gotta find a way to keep playing at a high level and try to finish some of these games out.”
The injury was sustained when The King’s right leg slipped while trying to protect the ball from Draymond Green. The official explanation was James had “overextended” the groin when the leg gave away. And when he tried over-compensate by back-peddling on defense, the overextension was overextended even more.
The Lakers were leading by 14 with 7:51 left in the quarter. James had already lit up the defending champions for 17 points and 13 rebounds in the first half.
James walked over the Lakers bench and told his coaches and trainers he “felt a pop.” Those who blow out knees or snap an Achilles often report the same phenomenon. Not until the game was over did James tell the national audience that the groin muscle was intact.
“With me with injuries, I am never too concerned about them,” said James, who was connected at the hip to an electric stimulation device prior to the team’s flight home. “I was able to walk off on my own power. I felt a pop and see if I could stretch it a few times and see if it will relieve, but it didn’t.”
James then admitted he had no idea what it all meant and wouldn’t until the radiologists reading his MRI results earn their fee. He added he’d begin immediate rehab and reassess. That didn’t turn out well.
In their short time together as a team, the Lakers had never played for an extended time without James. On Christmas, they showed they were at least capable of it if it became a long-term problem.
Remember, the Warriors responded to James’ absence by immediately going on a 17-3 run to cut LA’s lead to 78-76. But the Lakers fought back.
As hoped he might, James has resuscitated the franchise in just three months by averaging 26.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists. All three numbers mirror his career performance. James had also played in 116 consecutive regular-season games, 156 straight regular-season and postseason games combined.
“I take a lot of pride in [staying healthy], so that is why it pissed me off not being able to go back into the game,” said James. “It’s more than anything being available to my teammates, to my coaching staff; that is something I take more personal than anything.”
What might happen to the Lakers now is no longer a matter of conjecture. As important as he’s been to their on-court product – they had won nine of their last 15 before he was injured – he’s been even more instrumental to its level of confidence.
“I’ve never seen him hurt,” said Rondo. “I was a little shocked and couldn’t believe it. But I know it’s serious. Obviously, he wouldn’t sit out a game with [just] anything.”
The Lakers are aware of what a groin injury means. The same injury cost Stephen Curry 11 games earlier this season. They survived. No one knew if the Lakers would be as proficient at it. Now we do.
“This is unchartered territory,” said Walton. “But it’s been what we try to plan or; being able to play and compete when he’s not on the floor.”
It’s unchartered for James, too. Only one time in his career has he missed more than eight games. That was in 2014-15 with Cleveland when his cranky back and knee forced him out of 13 games. The Washington Post reported the Cavs were 4-23 without James in his last four seasons with them.
If he needs to miss time, it would be up to guys like Lonzo Ball, Kuzma and Brandon Ingram to take charge. Ball did not score in 23 minutes on Sunday.
“It’s always the next man up,” said James. “It’s pretty rare for me to have an injury period. We’ve got a great medical staff here and a great trainer and we’ll get to it.”