LeBron James injury has thrown the NBA title race wide open as LA Lakes lick their wounds

LeBron James suffered what is being described as the worst injury of his career and his likely long-term absence has thrown the NBA title race wide open.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James holds his ankle after going down with an injury during the first half of the game against the Atlanta Hawks. Picture: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

That may be an overstep, but to all intents and purposes, James, at 36, is that influential and has been almost single-handedly holding the Los Angeles Lakers’ season together.

The Lakers are the defending champions and the high sprain injury to James’ right ankle, which is described as potentially season-ending, couldn’t have come at a worse time. James, who did the damage in the defeat against Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night, played a huge role in last year’s run as the future Hall of Famer partnered with Anthony Davis to storm through to the Florida-bubbled finals.

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But power forward Davis has been out since the middle of February with a calf strain, and while LeBron has kept LA in contention, their form has slipped a little. The unfortunate thing is that Davis still isn’t ready to return as he continues his rehabilitation.

LeBron James grimaces as he trips and injures himself against Atlanta Hawks forward Tony Snell. Picture: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

The Western Conference has been the dominant force in the NBA over the past few years, winning six of the last eight championships, three of those going to the Golden State Warriors, who appeared in five straight finals.

But with the Lakers’ key men crocked the rest of the pack can smell blood in the water and will look to secure post-season basketball as quickly as possible.

The Western Conference’s current leaders are the Utah Jazz, with Phoenix Suns and the Lakers’ noisy neighbours, the LA Clippers, also closing out the top seeds.

The Suns have outperformed their pre-season predictions but continue on a hot streak winning eight out of their last ten, while just outside the leading pack, Denver are also riding a hot streak as they close in on the Lakers.

A sad sight for Los Angeles Lakers fans as LeBron James lies injured on the ground. He will miss the remainder of the season. Picture: Michael Owens/Getty Images

But with the pack chasing and hoping to edge out the James-less Lakers, the real opportunity falls to the conference-leading Utah Jazz.

The Jazz have spent a few years on the periphery, reaching the playoffs for the last four years in a row but never making it past the conference semi-finals.

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This year there’s a different feel about the Jazz, they managed to build a conference lead against a fit and healthy Lakers and, in the off-season, they secured the long-term future of Donovan Mitchell while having a core team that looks ready to make the leap.

There is a feeling that the Salt Lake City-based team could be one to contend for the next five or six years, but they will never be presented with a better opportunity to solidify their position than over the next few months.

This season the Jazz rank in the top seven of five of the six major stats and lead the league in average points differential. The team has put together a series of impressive wins based on their ability at both ends of the court, something that is a rarity in the modern NBA.

Of course, reaching the finals is one thing but winning them is another. Utah Jazz know this as much as any other team, having made the finals in back-to-back years in the Nineties only to be stopped by the Michael Jordan-led Bulls on both occasions.

Should they reach the finals, they would potentially face off against some excellent Eastern Conference teams, with the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia Flyers currently being the frontrunners and bookmakers’ favourites to win.

There is still a long way to go before Salt Lake City can start planning any parade, and coach Quin Snyder will be reminding his team that no-one wins a title in March. But he will also know that with the Lakers down a couple of superstars and other teams around them still finding pieces, there has never been a better time for the Utah Jazz to make a run to try to win their first NBA Championship.

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