The Los Angeles Lakers are going to the NBA Finals.
Let that sink in.
I know some fans see this as a birthright. The Lakers, owners of 16 championships and nearly double that many trips to the Finals are supposed to do this, right? They’re supposed to win, supposed to hover over the league like a specter, beating back opponents to claim what’s rightfully theirs.
That’s not how this works, though. A storied history is just that, history. It’s no guarantee for future success and after six years of not even qualifying for the post season, that much should be crystal clear now. So, savor this Lakers fans. Celebrate this.
No, as Kobe once famously said and both Dwight Howard and Frank Vogel have also repeated, the job isn’t done. With a championship in sight, there are bigger goals to be had. But this…THIS, is something too. Enjoy it.
While the journey to this point is worth reflecting on, we’ll save that for another day. For now, let’s focus on game 5 and this series vs. the Nuggets.
For the entirety of this series I’ve been waiting for the LeBron game. We’d seen Playoff LeBron is previous series, but just had not gotten that top level performace vs. the Nuggets. Now, Bron is so good he’ll find ways to get his numbers. But even though the Lakers were up 3-1, we’d not yet seen it. You know what it is, too. It’s that game where LeBron simply shows he’s better than everyone else. He seizes control and doesn’t let go until the victory is had.
In game 5, the wait ended. This was the LeBron game.
His stat line of 38 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists tells the story of dominance, but it was the execution and earning of those numbers that will live with me — particulary how he played in the 4th period. In that final frame Bron played the entire 12 minutes, hit 7 of his 10 shots to score 16 points, grabbed 5 rebounds, dished an assist, and tallied a steal. He attacked the rim with vigor, shot his jumper with confidence, and absolutely buried the Nuggets when the game looked like it might be even somewhat up for grabs.
There’s really no amount of praise that feels it would be enough for him this night. There was never a moment he seemed disengaged, no time where it felt like he could be doing more. He barked at his teammates for mistakes and played as technically sound a game as I can remember. He hunted every mismatch, played with high effort defensively, and late in the game turned to his jumper (on his terms) to turn the game in his team’s favor.
When it was winning time, in the highest leverage moments and with the stakes in full focus, LeBron did what he’s done so often in his career: he won the damn game.
He didn’t do it alone, though. Anthony Davis was a monster, too. AD scored 27 points on only 16 field goal attempts. He hit all 9 of his FT’s, had 3 assists, 2 steals, and a monster block. He only had 5 rebounds, but 3 were in the 4th quarter when every single possession mattered to the nth degree. In that final frame he also hit a huge 3 pointer that pushed the lead to 10 with a little over 6 minutes remaining, continuing the team’s momentum and swinging the game further in their favor.
Dwight Howard was also tremendous. He played a season high 35 minutes, and really took on the challenge of defending Jokic for nearly every second he was on the floor. He played with physicality, but also with elite effort, racing the floor in early offense and battling on the backboards all night. His 9 point, 9 rebound, and 2 blocks on the night don’t do justice to his overall impact on this game, particularly when you consider his ability to defend Jokic 1-on-1 limited how often the Lakers needed to double team which then takes away some of Jokic’s impact as a playmaker and passer.
And then there was Alex Caruso. He really is just a winning player. He had a couple of mistakes late in the game as a passer, but he did so many things well this game that contributed to the team’s overall success. His work as a cutter and a screener were top notch. He played his typical high level defense, both on the ball and as a help defender. He also contributed in the boxscore by making 5 of his 7 shots for 11 points, had 4 assists, 2 rebounds, a steal, and a block. He was a team high +16 too, which reflected how well the team played with him on the floor.
Of course, this level of play from the Lakers wouldn’t have even been needed if Denver was any less a competitive group than they were. They’re such a well coached, resilient group that even when the Lakers pushed their lead to double digits in the 4th quarter, there was always a sense they’d come back and make the Lakers fight until the very end.
Was this the best game from their stars? No, it was not.
Jamal Murray was not at his best physically, dealing with a knee contusion and, later, what looked like some sort of issue with his foot. He did not have the same explosiveness and scoring punch that he brought to game 4, but he still found his way into the paint, hitting an array of floaters and runners that kept the Lakers off balance.
Jokic, meanwhile, battled foul trouble all game and was only able to log a shade under 30 minutes on the night. Despite that, though, he still flashed his brilliance as a scoring threat, hitting 9 of his 16 shots for 20 points while adding in 5 assists. One can only imagine what he could have done if he’d been able to stay on the floor for longer, but I’m sure he’ll use this as a learning experience for future seasons and all the other big games he’s going to play in.
Denver, then, turned to their role players to help keep them in it and they delivered. Paul Millsap struggled with his shot from the floor, but found ways to manufacture points by getting to the FT line. He went 10-11 from the stripe and those points allowed Denver to hang tight and avoid letting the game slip away. Jerami Grant also continued his strong play, scoring 20 points and grabbing 9 rebounds while playing with major effort defensively. When Murray was hobbled, it was Grant who hit two 3-pointers in the 2nd half to keep the Nuggets connected on the scoreboard.
In the end, though, it was not enough. The Lakers were too much. LeBron was too good. And there’s no shame in that. None at all. Denver fought as hard as they could and proved to not only be a game opponent, but a team on its ascencion to being a western power for seasons to come.
It’s the Lakers, however, who are the western power right now. They’re going to the NBA Finals and will try to win their 17th championship in franchise history. What a night.
And now, a few more notes…
- Shoutout to Danny Green. He hasn’t had the best series and if you searched his name on twitter over the last week you wouldn’t find many flattering words about him. But he competed his tail off this game defensively, blocking 2 shots and rotating all over the floor on 2nd and 3rd efforts in single possessions, hit a huge 3 pointer in the 4th quarter, and was just a steady glue guy in every lineup he played in. Was this his best game? No, but I was really happy for him that he came through how he did in this one.
- The Lakers didn’t shoot the ball exceptionally well, but they did hit 9 of their 24 attempts from behind the arc, which was one more make than the Nuggets. The Lakers are incredibly hard to beat when they outshoot any opponent and that was again true this game.
- A really good FT shooting night from the Lakers, hitting 24 of their 29 shots from the stripe. LeBron and AD combined to go 16-17 from there and only Dwight Howard missed more than one FT on the night. In a game where every point really did matter, this type of game from the line for a team that isn’t usually that accurate was huge.
- Another night where the Lakers won the rebounding battle. Denver was actually better on the offensive glass than the Lakers were (and had a huge margin in 2nd chance points), but much of that was because the Lakers shot so well from the field overall that they had fewer OReb chances than Denver. Still, though, I thought the Lakers did a pretty good job of closing out defensive possessions with a rebound and it helped them get some easier shots in early offense.
- Kyle Kuzma is sure to catch some (deserved) flack for his overall play this series, but after a rough start for him this game, I thought he settled down enough to have some good moments. He had a couple of excellent cuts to get easy baskets in the paint, finally hit a 3 when just letting it fly instead of second guessing, and had a couple of really good passes to his big men (one to Dwight and one to AD) that set up a basket and a drawn foul at the rim. Again, this was far from his best series, but he competed well (even if he didn’t always play his smartest game).
- Lastly, I really want to give Frank Vogel his shine here. Over the course of the series, I thought he made key adjustments to put the Lakers in good position to win. This game, in particular, he deployed more traps on Jamal Murray in the P&R, changed up Bron’s attack angles when the Lakers ran their own P&R, he played Dwight big minutes to match up almost exclusively with Jokic, and rode LeBron for the entire 4th period instead of giving him his normal rest. That shortened 2nd half rotation left the Lakers best players on the floor for longer, really pushing them towards this win.