The Los Angeles Lakers’ title defense is on the brink of officially ending. With L.A. trailing their first-round series with the Phoenix Suns 3-2 before Thursday night’s Game 6 at Staples Center, the Lakers are on their way to being eliminated from the 2021 NBA playoffs.

The Lakers have faced an uphill battle all year long. It started when the regular season opened before Christmas, a little over two months after LeBron James and Anthony Davis led L.A. to a championship in the bubble. Los Angeles was forced into having the shortest offseason in American professional team sports history.

A fast start eventually gave way to injuries to the Lakers’ two superstars. Whether the brief offseason was related or not, James and Davis have been battling serious ailments for the last several months. 

It will probably be too much for the Lakers to overcome.

Achilles, calf and shoulder injuries plagued Davis during the regular season. The 28-year-old hurt his knee in a Game 3 victory over the Suns. A groin strain forced Davis to miss the second half of Game 4 and all of Game 5.

On March 20, James suffered a high ankle sprain that kept him out for all but three more regular-season games. With Davis already out for more than a month at that point, James’ injury might’ve been a sign that the Lakers faced too many obstacles to repeat as champions.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is dealing with a knee injury that forced him to miss Game 4. Caldwell-Pope might have been the Lakers’ third-best player during last year’s title run.

James hasn’t missed a game this postseason, and his numbers are still better than most. While it’s unclear exactly how much the ankle might be affecting him, the 36-year-old hasn’t been able to take over the series the way he could in recent years, or even months.

On his way to winning his fourth NBA Finals MVP award, James averaged 27.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 10.8 assists while shooting 56% from the field in 21 games during the 2020 playoffs. James is down to 22.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game on 48.9% shooting against Phoenix. 

Even playing his best, James would have a hard time carrying the Lakers’ Game 5 lineup to the next round. The Suns are the No. 2 seed in the West, falling one game shy of the best record in the entire league.

Chris Paul was arguably a top-five MVP candidate in the regular season, and his shoulder injury appears to be much improved from earlier in the series. Coming off back-to-back All-Star selections, Devin Booker is averaging 26.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists against the Lakers. Deandre Ayton became the first player ever to post a double-double while shooting at least 70% from the field in four straight playoff games.

Without Davis, the talent gap between Los Angeles and Phoenix is significant, a fact highlighted by the 11 total points scored by four starters in the Lakers’ embarrassing 115-85 Game 5 loss.

Davis was dominant in Los Angeles’ Game 2 and Game 3 victories, recording a pair of 34-point double-doubles. With Davis leading the way, the Lakers showed why they have the NBA’s No. 1 ranked defense. 

No decision has been made on Davis’ status for Game 6. He wasn’t officially ruled out for Game 5 until tip-off was less than an hour away. Maybe Davis will gut it out and suit up with the Lakers’ season on the line.

Davis is unlikely to be himself just four days after suffering a groin strain. It should be the final game the Lakers play this season.

Game 6 Prediction: Suns over Lakers, 105-98

LeBron James Anthony Davis Lakers LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers react after winning the 2020 NBA Championship in Game Six of the 2020 NBA Finals at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on October 11, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)