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LeBron’s Splash May Have Awakened the Reigning Champs

James put Steph Curry on the wrong side of a clutch 34-footer to propel the Lakers past the play-in and push the Warriors to the brink

Ringer Illustration

The start of the Lakers’ repeat bid didn’t exactly go according to plan. The defending champs were dismal out of the blocks in Wednesday’s showdown with the Warriors in the NBA’s inaugural play-in tournament, struggling mightily to generate good looks against a hellacious Golden State defense keyed by Draymond Green. With LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Dennis Schröder shooting a combined 4-for-28 in the first half, the Lakers headed into halftime down by 13 after an absurd buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Stephen Curry; L.A. looked less like a team ready to run it back than one that, after ripping off five straight wins to end a regular season that saw its two best players miss a combined 63 games, might have run out of gas.

How you start matters less than how you finish, though. And after the Lakers tightened the screws—and the rotations—in the second half to get back into the fight, LeBron and Co. authored one hell of a finale:

With just over a minute left in the fourth quarter and the score knotted at 100, LeBron did what he’s done for more than a half decade against the Warriors: He hunted Steph in the pick-and-roll. The Warriors were ready for it, though, refusing a soft switch, making the Lakers burn clock, and, when they eventually did give up the switch, bringing quick help into the paint to keep the rolling Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from getting a layup. With his path barricaded, KCP flung the ball back out to James, who minutes earlier had taken a poke in the eye on a hard foul from Green, and who had no recourse with the seconds ticking away but to catch, fire over the outstretched arms of Curry, and … splash through a 34-footer as the shot clock expired to give the Lakers the lead.

A couple of stops later—one a missed open corner 3 by Jordan Poole, the other a last-gasp inbound play snuffed out by Davis—the Lakers had a 103-100 victory, securing the no. 7 seed and a date with the second-seeded Suns, and registering another remarkable moment for the highlight reel, which at this point has to be just about the longest in NBA history.

It was the longest made field goal of the season for LeBron, who barely seemed to make an impact in the first half and yet still finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, two steals, a block, and just one turnover in 35 minutes. He stuck the shot directly in the mug of the guy who elevated those sorts of shots into an art form. Not all eye pokes, it seems, are created equal.

In the moment, it seemed like Curry couldn’t believe what he’d just seen:

After the game, though, he acknowledged that he had seen something pretty similar before:

The difference, of course, is that Kyrie Irving drilled his game-winning triple in Steph’s face in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. LeBron’s miracle long ball came in a game that the Lakers had to win just to grab the second-to-last playoff berth in the West. The Lakers have a lot of ground to cover between here and the promised land—and a few issues to figure out along the way.

Andre Drummond had a rough night, producing just four points, seven rebounds, and numerous defensive miscues in 17 minutes before being benched midway through the third quarter. Montrezl Harrell didn’t fare much better, chipping in four points and three boards in 10 minutes; he didn’t see the floor again after the midpoint of the second quarter. Marc Gasol—L.A.’s former starting center, who’s lost a step and never looks at the rim but was part of the unit that was hammering teams early in the season—never took off his warmups.

Instead, with a playoff berth on the line, Lakers coach Frank Vogel did what he did liberally in the bubble, but seemed loath to do during the regular season: He slid Davis to center, put an extra wing on the floor, and dared the opposition to beat a version of the Lakers replete with size, speed, offensive skill, and defensive menace.

Davis logged more time at the 5 against Golden State than he had in the previous month combined. Most of that time came in the second half—of which AD played every second, by the way—and it paid major dividends. After Green put on a defensive clinic against him through the first two and a half quarters, AD found significantly more offensive success working as a center in a spread floor, without Drummond or Harrell clogging the lane.

With more shooting on the floor for the Warriors defense to honor, Vogel started running actions aimed at engaging Draymond as a help defender, drawing him away from his primary assignment and giving Davis some room to operate. The Lakers also started pushing the pace off of Warriors misses and turnovers, activating their previously dormant transition game—and, with it, AD’s devastating skill as a finisher and in the open court:

Moving him to center also allowed Vogel to give more run to defense-first reserves Alex Caruso and Wesley Matthews, both of whom made a massive impact in the second half with their constant activity—especially on Curry, whom the Lakers doubled early and often. For the most part, the league’s leading scorer handled the traps and all the extra attention with aplomb, finishing with a game-high 37 points on 12-for-23 shooting, including a 6-for-9 mark from 3-point range:

But making Davis the primary big-man defender on Steph’s pick-and-rolls and leaning harder on Caruso and Matthews to play hard-nosed defense on the perimeter did wreak some havoc on Golden State’s offense. The Warriors scored just 45 points after intermission; they also committed 15 turnovers, 10 coming from Curry and Green, which played a major role in turning the tide in the Lakers’ favor:

The quartet of James, Davis, Caruso, and Matthews played just 13 minutes together all season; it logged nine minutes on Wednesday and outscored the Warriors by 19 points, completely transforming the game. They looked and felt like the Lakers who won the title: a team built around Davis destroying worlds on both ends, LeBron making everything run on time, and big, tough, multifaceted perimeter players defending, moving the ball, and making the shots that LeBron and AD create for them. That group, plus a like-minded fifth—Caldwell-Pope or Kyle Kuzma, most likely—feels like it should be L.A.’s hammer lineup moving forward.

It doesn’t feature Drummond, though, whom Vogel continues to promote as the Lakers’ starting center, or Schröder, a vital source of offense during the regular season who’s looking for a big role and a bigger payday this summer. How might they—and Harrell, and Talen Horton-Tucker, who saw just six minutes in the play-in game—handle being minimized in the rotation as Vogel tries to steer the Lakers through the Western Conference gauntlet without home-court advantage?

Thanks to James’s bleary-eyed sharpshooting, though, those are tomorrow’s problems. (Well, Sunday’s problems, technically.) The Warriors, on the other hand, have the more immediately pressing concern of still needing to punch their postseason ticket.

They’ll get another chance on Friday when they take on the Grizzlies, who outlasted the Spurs, 100-96, in Wednesday’s early game behind monster performances from gentleman masher Jonas Valanciunas (23 points, 23 rebounds, three blocks in 38 minutes) and hard-charging swingman Dillon Brooks (who scored eight of his game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter and whose lockdown defense helped hold DeMar DeRozan to just 5-for-21 shooting).

Golden State went 2-1 in the regular season against Memphis, including a victory last Sunday in which Steph popped for 46-7-9 and secured his second scoring title. Now, after a 48-minute slugfest that went down to the final seconds, the Warriors have to knock off a young, tough, hungry Grizzlies team for the second time in a week. If they can’t, they’ll look back on the missed opportunities and miscues—the sloppy passes into traffic that kick-started L.A.’s transition game, the unnecessary fouls that got the Lakers to the line, the empty possessions at inopportune times—and kick themselves for not taking care of business when they had the chance.

“This is a bitter pill to swallow,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “This was our game and we couldn’t get it done.”