LOS ANGELES — Once the horn sounded and the confetti dropped, Lakers star LeBron James and Anthony Davis huddled together.
Not only did they show elation over the Lakers prevailing with a 104-101 win over the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series on Monday at Crypto.com Arena. They showed joy with Lakers guard Lonnie Walker IV, who scored all of his playoff career-high 15 points in the fourth quarter.
“The game ball definitely goes to him,” James said afterwards. “We don’t win without him.”
Those words might require a double take. After all, James posted 27 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Davis added 23 points, 15 rebounds and three steals while defending at all five spots. And the Lakers collectively forced a championship-tested Warriors team to commit 22 fouls and 16 turnovers.
But James’ was not speaking hyperbole at all to explain why the Lakers hold a 3-1 series lead over Golden State with a chance to close out in Game 5 on Wednesday in San Francisco. Not only did Walker score all 15 of his points in the final period. Walker made timely plays, including a 3 to open the fourth, a go-ahead jumper with 1:53 left and a pair of foul shots with 15 seconds left to ensure the win. And Walker added three rebounds, two assists and two steals in 27 minutes off the bench.
No wonder James hugged Walker before patting him on the head. Davis also hugged him before sharing admiration for both his play and how he has handled a fluctuating role. Walker thrived well enough to become the first Lakers reserve to score at least 15 points since the late Kobe Bryant posted 17 points against Utah during his rookie season 26 years ago.
“Just being a true pro. Weathering the storm and learning how to dance in the storm,” Walkers said of his teammates’ message. “Just how happy they are for me. There are things that are uncontrollable.”
The Lakers became intrigued enough with Walker’s two-way skills through four seasons at San Antonio that they signed him last summer with their mid-level exception. But he missed a combined 18 games due to various ailments, including 11 involving left knee tendinitis (Jan. 6 – Jan. 25). After the Lakers made various trade deadline moves to ensure a more balanced roster, Walker experienced nine healthy scratches through March and April. And in the Lakers’ first-round series against Memphis, Walker averaged only 4.0 minutes in four games and sat in the other two.
Nonetheless, Lakers coach Darvin Ham maintained that Walker “fell out of the rotation through no fault of his own.” If anything, Lakers coach and teammates became encouraged that Walker kept a positive attitude through his circumstances. He still cheered on teammates from the bench. He impressed the Lakers with his diligent practice habits that included watching film and playing games of 3-on-3 and 5-on-5 with the team’s “stay-ready group.” And they never heard him explain about his demotion.
That struck Ham and James in particular. Ham both played with and coached young players that did not thrive in those circumstances. James played with such players, too. Walker did not become another example. He became a success story.
“Whatever you put out in the world, it’s a 360-degree existence that we live in,” Ham said. “Whatever you put out, it goes full circle. It’ll either come back and slap you in the face or come back and hug you. The energy he put out, it hugged him and it hugged us.”
No wonder the Lakers literally hugged Walker after Game 4. After James and Davis embraced Walker, Jarred Vanderbilt and D’Angelo Russell followed suit. Shortly afterwards, Walker then exchanged handshakes with his other teammates.
“It means a lot. I really can’t put into words how truly ecstatic it is to be in this situation,” Walker said. “But to have my teammates be there with me through thick and thin and understanding what it is, it’s a great feeling. I’m really going to cherish this day and soak it all in.”
Walker will have plenty so soak in and remember.
With the Warriors holding an 84-77 lead entering the fourth quarter, the Lakers’ first play involved Walker. He set a screen on Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins to force Stephen Curry onto James at the top of the key. Walker threw Wiggins off with cutting inside before returning back behind the perimeter. After catching James’ pass, Walker squared up and drilled a 3-pointer over Wiggins to cut Golden State’s lead to 84-80 with 11:47 left. Walker did not hesitate with shooting despite not taking a 3 up until then.
“I’m a scorer mentality, first. First shot in the fourth or first shot in the first, it doesn’t really mean any difference to me, honestly,” Walker said. “I’ve been shooting a lot of shots my entire life. I got a lot of confidence in myself. I know my value. I know what I’m capable of doing by the grace of God and a lot of hard work and sacrifices and a lot of time in the gym.”
Walker’s resiliency paid off more.
Nearly two minutes later, Warriors forward Draymond Green drove past James toward the basket before darting a mis-timed pass to Wiggins in the paint. Walker outraced Thompson both for the loose ball and for a fast-break layup to create an 86-84 cushion with 9:27 remaining. On the Lakers’ next offensive possession, Walker sank a baseline jumper off of Dennis Schroder’s inbounds pass. About a minute later, Walker then drilled a 3 over Curry to tie the game at 90 with 7:53 left.
About four minutes later, Walker assumed play-making responsibilities at the top of the key before James set a screen on Curry. Walker ran the pick-and-roll by driving left and making a floater to tie the game at 96 with 3:42 remaining. Almost two minutes later, James swung the ball to Walker on the other side of the court. He then dribbled past Curry before sinking a pull-up jumper to give the Lakers a 100-99 edge with 1:53 left. With the Lakers later holding a 102-101 lead with 17.1 seconds left, Walker rebounded Curry’s missed 30-footer and made a pair of foul shots to secure the win.
“As a kid, this is something I’ve been dreaming of doing, not just being a part of playoffs, but impacting and winning in the playoffs,” Walker said. “I’m truly proud of myself. It really shows my capability and just my mental fortitude. The hardest thing with being able to play a lot and not playing at all is sticking with it.”
At only age 24, Walker sounded grateful he has kept that attitude throughout his childhood to tackle various adversities. Walker has no plans to change his attitude following his break-out game. He remained self-aware about his value, describing himself as “a role player” that has to do “all the little things.” That includes defending, rebounding and taking charges as opposed to just making clutch shots.
Walker has higher career aspirations than fulfilling those intangibles, but he understands the necessity with maximizing his work ethic and embracing each opportunity.
“I’m in love with myself,” Walker said. “I want to be my best self. I think that’s the greatest prize of it all. I’m ambitious and eager to be where LeBron and AD are and become a star.”
For one night, Walker may have felt like a star with both his play and with how James and Davis treated him afterwards. He sounded intent with maintaining that feeling.
“The most important thing is trying to better yourself every day,” Walker said. “It’s not going to be all flowers and lollipops and good and stuff. There are going to be hard times. But that is God’s ultimate test to make you learn something in order to get to your goal. This is nothing new. This is just building blocks and I got to continue to go.”