LOS ANGELES – The Lakers’ stars began their evening marking their territory with their dominant play, strong work ethic and empowering leadership. LeBron James and Anthony then ended their evening with marking their territory by establishing their expectations for a successful season.
The Lakers finished with a 122-101 win over the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of their second-round playoff series on Friday at Crypto.com Arena, an outcome that eliminated the defending NBA champions and thrust a once-floundering franchise back into the Western Conference Finals for the second time in four years. Yet, James sat at the podium dismissively shaking his head on whether the Lakers believe they are now playing with “house money.”
After all, the Lakers labored to a 2-10 start. They ranked in 13th place in the Western Conference before the trade deadline. The Lakers then became a dramatically better team after trading Russell Westbrook both because of his poor fit and his value brought in various positional needs. Nonetheless, the Lakers needed to overcome a 15-point deficit to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime just to ensure a playoff spot as a seventh seed.
“That’s ya’ll expectations,” Davis said. “Our expectations are a lot higher than showing up to the Western Conference Finals.”
The Lakers always expect to win an NBA championship. They want to surpass the hated Boston Celtics for most trophies (18). They want to rectify their first-round exit to Phoenix (2021) and missed playoff appearance (2022) two years after winning the NBA title in the bubble. And now they would like to eliminate the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals beginning with Game 1 on Tuesday in a high-altitude city.
Therefore, the Lakers hardly think they have finished the job after eliminating both Memphis and Golden State in six games. James and Davis reiterated that message to their teammates afterwards. To get to that point, though, James and Davis ensured they played dominant against a Warriors team that can always feature Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson having a break-out shooting performance as well as Draymond Green making defensive stops all over the court.
James may have felt the strain of 20 NBA seasons, 10 Finals appearances and a recently sore left foot while playing every other day during the Western Conference semifinals. But that didn’t stop James from posting 30 points while shooting 10-for-14 from the field and 8-for-11 from the free-throw line along with nine assists and nine rebounds in 43 minutes. In what James called “one of our most efficient games,” his playmaking also facilitated team balance with D’Angelo Russell (19 points), Lonnie Walker IV (13) and Rui Hachimura (nine). Even as the Lakers nursed a double-digit lead, James didn’t sit out until 3:45 remaining when the Lakers created a 116-94 cushion.
“It may have looked like I was conserving my energy. But I was dead tired after every one of the games,” James said. “You don’t really have the opportunity conserve your energy against a Golden State team because they always keep you on your heels. You have to always understand and know that anytime you relax, they’ll make you pay.”
James knows from experience, obviously. With the Cleveland Cavaliers, James faced the Warriors through four consecutive Finals runs (2015-2019) and only won one of them (2015). Some of that had to do with Kevin Durant winning two consecutive Finals MVPs after joining the group (2017, 2018). But it also has to do with Curry, Thompson and Green. So as soon as the game ended, James gave each of the Warriors’ stars warm hugs.
That embrace wouldn’t have taken place if not for Davis, who had 17 points on 5-for-9 shooting and 20 rebounds in 40 minutes. That might seem like a normal performance, but consider the context. Davis missed the final 7:34 of Game 5 after Warriors forward Kevon Looney inadvertently struck his face while chasing for a rebound. Davis felt in so much pain that he hunched over on the bench before the training staff wheelchaired him to the locker room area.
The Lakers’ medical staff determined he didn’t nurse any concussion or any symptoms. Two days later, Davis answered defiantly on if he felt any risk with playing (“no”) and how his head has held up (“fine”). But don’t mistake Davis remarks as evidence that he acted in dramatic fashion over his injury.
A player can show immediate pain before it quickly dissipates. A player can be asymptomatic before suddenly turning for the worse. That explains, per the NBA’s concussion protocols, why the Lakers evaluated him for a concussion both after Game 4 on Wednesday night and on Thursday evening. That didn’t stop TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley as well as ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, though, from laughing over Davis’ ailment considering his extensive injury history.
“I don’t really put much emotional or mental stock into that type of stuff,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “The only thing I know is he’s highly appreciated by the Lakers organization. He’s highly appreciated by myself, my coaching staff and his teammates. I think anything going on outside of those walls, with what we’re doing and what our environment is, is useless and irrelevant.”
What is useful and relevant: how James and Davis have led the team to post-season success. Ham credited them for how they have remained diligent with their recovery on non gamedays, how they have mentored their teammates and how they have collaborated with the coaching staff.
James and Davis performed these duties even during the Lakers’ struggles. But they weren’t as effective because of the Lakers’ flawed roster. That changed once Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka made various moves before the trade deadline to address their point-guard needs (Russell), shooting (Malik Beasley), wing depth (Hachimura) and interior defense (Jarred Vanderbilt, Mo Bamba). The Lakers’ other role players, including Austin Reaves, Lonnie Walker IV and Dennis Schroder also blossomed with the improved roster.
“You just try to be patient and let the man above do what he’s going to do,” James said. “I felt like if we ever had an opportunity to upgrade our roster and put some more balance around myself and AD, I felt like we could make a run. I feel like we could make a push throughout the rest of the regular season and going into the postseason. Rob and the front office, they did that. It was up to me and AD to come through on the moves that they made and staying healthy.”
James and Davis struggled with the latter part. James missed a combined 27 games because of various ailments, including 13 to treat a sore right foot from late February through late March. Davis missed 26 games, including 23 to treat a stressed right foot from late December through early January before missing back-to-backs for maintenance purposes.
Once the playoffs started, James and Davis showed fluctuating signs of fatigue and effectiveness. But they always found a way to positive impact the game. James did so with his playmaking and hustle plays. Davis did so with his defense and his post presence. In Game 6 against Golden State, both James and Davis showcased the best version of themselves.
Fittingly, the Lakers’ stars haven’t played this well together since facing Denver in the 2020 Western Conference Finals ahead of their NBA title run.
“They’re a different team,” Davis said of the Nuggets. “We’re a different team.”
Maybe so. But the Lakers still have James and Davis, whom Ham praised for “playing big in the biggest of moments.” Those next moments could certainly entail lifting another trophy. Both James and Davis expect it.
Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.