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It’s Time to Take the Lakers Seriously (Again)

Few believed Los Angeles could be a legit contender this season, even after its trade deadline makeover. But after upsetting the Grizzlies in the first round? It’s hard to deny that LeBron James and Co. have a real shot at another title.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

There’s something special about these Lakers, led by an evolving LeBron James, a restored Anthony Davis, and a strong supporting cast of shooters, passers, and hustlers.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Lakers pulled off something poetic in the first round, proving to Ja Morant that the Grizzlies were far from “fine in the West.” Dillon Brooks asked for 40 points from LeBron and instead got served a 40-point blowout in Game 6, turning him from a villain into a clown. Sure, the Grizzlies are an overachieving group as the NBA’s second-youngest team. They had an ailing point guard (Morant), and were missing two key bigs (Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke) in the first round. But they were the no. 2 seed. They were supposed to win. Instead, after their 125-85 victory on Friday night, the Lakers are the first 7-seed to upset a 2-seed since 2010. And they showed plenty of signs that they’re trending up.

In Game 6, Davis unleashed his inner John Wick, going full assassin mode, and delivering a performance reminiscent of his legendary 2020 run:

The playoffs reveal the divide between regular-season and postseason performance. On a team-wide basis, we’ve seen surprising results galore in the first round. Individually, when AD plays at full throttle, his combination of imposing size, length, reaction time, and quickness on the perimeter is unmatched around the league. While Davis didn’t set the league afire during the regular season, if he’s surging back into peak form during the playoffs, it should strike fear into the hearts of the rest of the NBA.

The biggest difference between Davis now and during his 2020 title run is his offense. Back then, AD caught fire as a shooter. Now, he barely takes any shots at all away from the paint. The current Lakers use him as more of a finisher around the basket who rolls hard to the paint, cuts inside, and cleans up the boards. In Game 6, he buried Jackson with a ferocious dunk.

LeBron’s role is different too because he isn’t as explosive physically as he once was, mainly because he’s 38 years old, has logged a gazillion minutes in his 20-year career, and is dealing with a foot injury. In Game 6, we saw him shift roles, allowing D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves to run the offense while he feasted off-ball, cutting and screening, and raced up the floor in transition to get a full head of steam.

LeBron still handles the ball plenty and he can still ramp it up. In Game 4, he snatched victory away from the Grizzlies with ruthless downhill drives to the rim late in the fourth quarter and overtime. It was one of the more remarkable moments of the season, especially considering his true impact on that game was made with his defense, taking two charges and grabbing a career-high 20 rebounds.

Things can be different for LeBron now though, and they need to be due to his age and health. His absence in the second half of the regular season has proven to be a silver lining since it provided Reaves the reps to carve out a primary role. We saw the rewards of that at the end of Game 1 when LeBron and AD let Reaves pick-and-roll the Memphis drop coverage to death late in the fourth quarter.

Following a massively successful trade deadline that made me high on them, the Lakers now have shot creators who can provide a spark so LeBron doesn’t always need to create for himself when a defense keys in on him and Davis doesn’t need to jack up so many jumpers.

The new-look Lakers are, frankly, loaded. Russell can catch fire, like he did in Game 6 with 31 points, or like he did at the end of Game 4 hitting three straight 3-pointers to close the gap and give the Lakers a chance to win. Reaves scored 23 points in that same Game 4. Rui Hachimura has his moments on-ball, especially at the end of the clock. Jarred Vanderbilt is a connective piece in the frontcourt. And Dennis Schroder regularly provides a two-way spark off the bench. All of them have bought into their roles, just as LeBron and Davis have by occasionally letting someone else control the offense.

The tweak to LeBron’s role in Game 6 was a wise adjustment by Lakers head coach Darvin Ham. Ham also shortened his rotation and went with just seven players, benching Malik Beasley and Troy Brown Jr. until garbage time in favor of heavier minutes for Hachimura, who helped shut down Desmond Bane. Also earning more time was Schroder, who would be a candidate for Hustle Player of the Year if it existed.

Ham has made his share of errors in his first season as a head coach—like pulling Davis when the Lakers were rolling and trailing by just one point midway through the third quarter of Game 5—but these types of tweaks are encouraging for a rookie head coach still learning the ropes. Though Ham has his flaws as a young coach, the players do respect him as a leader. Despite being led by two of the biggest stars in the league, there’s a contagious selflessness to this team on offense, and they play with a spirit on defense. They want it.

The Lakers have a challenging road ahead. They’ll either face the Warriors or Kings depending on who wins Game 7 on Sunday. There’s no guarantee of achieving their ultimate goal, but their team possesses all the ingredients of a champion.