At some point next week, the Los Angeles Lakers will begin the NBA Finals for the 32nd time in the history of their franchise. After wrapping up the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets before the Eastern Conference Finals are over, they still don’t know who they’ll be playing, but whether it’s the Boston Celtics or Miami Heat, this team looks to have a real shot to raise banner No. 17.
Normally after these games we do three takeaways, but if you can forgive the indulgence, tonight I’m going to break down five reasons the Lakers were able to win a momentous Game 5, and head back to the Finals for the first time in a decade.
The first takeaway?
LeBron is still good
Or, as Danny Green put it:
Danny Green on LeBron James: "He's the greatest player in the God damn world."— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) September 27, 2020
Green is not wrong. James may have only finished second in MVP voting this year, but these NBA playoffs haven’t left a shadow of a doubt: When LeBron James wants to be, he is still the baddest man on the planet.
In Game 5, James finished with a gaudy stat line of 38 points, 10 assists and 15 rebounds for the 27th playoff triple-double of his career — just three short of Magic Johnson’s all-time record. The performance was impressive any way you look at it, but it wasn’t the numbers that made it that way, because James gets those even on nights he doesn’t have it. He’s that good.
But while a few mediocre games from James in the Lakers’ past two contests had led some to wonder (again) whether Father Time was finally catching up with him, Saturday made it clear that even if that mythological basketball grim reaper is gaining ground, James is still fighting off the effects of his 35 years on the planet. He got basically whatever he wanted against Denver’s defense, forcing switches onto seven-foot stiff Mason Plumlee, a hobbled and undersized Jamal Murray and inexperienced rookie Michael Porter Jr., barreling into the lane to draw fouls and make tough buckets like a man who was simply not going to allow a Game 6.
Of the players constantly touted as rivals for James’ throne (this year, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo), only James is left standing. Part of that is because of the team — most notably Anthony Davis — constructed around him, but arguably just as big of one is that James is just the best player to ever live, a man possessed who can will his team to wins on nearly any night when anywhere close to healthy. He and his Lakers have now only lost three games in their entire playoff run, less than Leonard (to this very same Nuggets team) and Antetokounmpo (to the Heat) lost in only the rounds that eliminated them.
Basketball may be a team sport, but the team with James on it has now been in the Finals in nine of the last 10 years. Maybe it’s time to stop letting the search for who’s next cause us to overlook the players who is still now.
All that noted, it wasn’t just James that was good for the Lakers tonight, as the reality is...
The Lakers might be unbeatable when they hit their shots
While James had the gaudiest stat line, the key number for the team might have been their 3-point percentage. The Lakers shot 37.5% from distance on Saturday, and this team is impossible to stop when they do that.
That’s not being hyperbolic, either: The Lakers are literally undefeated (12-0) in the postseason when they shoot 30% or better from three. Their only losses have come when they’ve shot worse than than that 30% mark.
The Lakers are a deep, versatile defensive powerhouse. Their coaching staff constructs great game plans and make smart adjustments, and they have two of the top-five players in the world. Their waves of physicality and length exhaust teams, and when they also get a boost from their shooting, they genuinely might be unstoppable.
And if they want to do that consistently, they may have just gotten a good sign because...
Danny Green had a (small) bounce-back game
Green has taken a ton of flack this postseason, and some of it has definitely been warranted. Green is a 3-point specialist who has had some high-profile clanks, and he runs hot and cold, so when he’s bad, it’s incredibly obvious.
That said, he’s still shooting 36.5% from three in the postseason so far, which ranks fifth among Lakers with more than five attempts. He hasn’t been the sniper his nickname of “Deadshot” would suggest, but the Lakers were 26.7 points per 100 possessions better with Green on the floor than they were when he sat during this series. While some of that is noise attributable to Green playing a good chunk of minutes with the starters (especially James and Davis), he’s been okay. And against the Nuggets in Game 5, he was better than that.
Green’s stat line — 11 points and 2 assists — isn’t going to blow anyone away, but he made two of his four threes and played decent defensively. He wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t some explosion that won the Lakers the game, but if Green is making two of his four threes, the Lakers aren’t going to lose a ton of those nights. Hopefully seeing the ball go through the net a few times can shake him out of his recent funk.
But speaking of things people get mad about on Twitter...
No, the Western Conference Finals weren’t rigged
NBA Twitter — a semi-monolithic entity that the various parts of which collectively undervalued, looked over and picked against the Lakers at nearly every point of this season because they don’t win pretty — was unable to reckon with this team actually ending up in the NBA Finals, and was instead forced to again complain that, no, they weren’t wrong. The game was rigged, of course. As if LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers couldn’t beat a hobbled and exhausted Nuggets team on their own.
There was a lot of crowing especially about Nikola Jokic getting in early foul trouble in the first half, but his first foul was a dumb clear path foul on the break, the second was for slapping a guy on the arm while he was shooting, and the third was for knocking over Alex Caruso — a player nearly a foot shorter than him — in the post.
Now, were those tough calls for Denver to deal with? Of course. Did they lead to Mike Malone making the decision to sit his star as the Lakers went on a run? Yes. But were they evidence of some conspiracy that people have been searching for ever since they realized the Lakers had this series in the bag? Absolutely not.
Look, I’m not going to sit here and say the officiating has been great in the bubble, but it’s been uneven all around. We can look at the raw numbers. The Lakers were whistled for more fouls (135) in this series than the Nuggets were (122). The Lakers also only attempted three more free throws (142-139) in the series, the same amount extra they had in Game 5 (29 vs. 26 for Denver). They were still called for more fouls (26) than Denver (25) on the night. This was not some “NbA iS rIgGeD” evidence, as much as Denver fans and people who still can’t grapple with how good the Lakers are wanted to cry like it was every time the Nuggets got called for a foul in games 4 and 5. It was weird to see all of NBA Twitter go full HouAnon, but sadly also unsurprising.
The Lakers won this series 4-1. That’s not because the NBA handed it to them. Let’s give this team some credit.
And speaking of credit...
I still can’t believe Dwight Howard was a part of this
This story has already gone too long, but I have to pause here for a quick personal note. I’ve told this story before, but I started covering the Lakers for this very blog on the day after Dwight Howard left. The team did not make the playoffs during my entire time writing about them until this year, and it’s been awesome to experience that with all of you.
That said, if you went back in time to July 6, 2013 and told a very-overwhelmed, much-better-hairlined Harrison Faigen that Dwight Howard was one day going to come back to the Lakers, become a beloved role player and be the key to them winning a series over seven years later, I would have asked if you were on bath salts (and that’s before you told me about all the other stuff that’s happened in 2020).
But Howard has been an incredible addition to the Lakers this year, going through an almost-unbelievable redemption arc that would probably get rejected as too perfect if you brought it to a Hollywood producer. He was also the X-Factor that keyed this series.
The Lakers won both of their games to close out the conference finals after Frank Vogel inserted Howard into the starting lineup, and the Lakers were 30.1 points per 100 possessions better with Howard on the court during this series than they were when he sat. Just like with Green, there is noise in that stat, but his defense on Nikola Jokic and work on the offensive glass — he grabbed an astounding 10.2% of all available offensive rebounds — were legitimately game-changing.
Howard is far from a perfect player, but he’s an excellent one who knows exactly what the Lakers need him to do, and fills that role with zeal. It feels fitting that as I’m getting to cover my first NBA Finals, the man I just missed getting much of a chance to write about the first time he was here is back, bringing things full circle for Howard, the Lakers, me and this community. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride as much as I have, and let’s take the next few days to just enjoy that we’re getting another chance to watch this team compete for a title.