With their 122-101 rout over the Golden State Warriors in Game 6, the Lakers not only punched their ticket to the Western Conference Finals, but continued what has been an improbable turnaround.
As frustrating as the bumps in the road earlier in the season were in real time, each hurdle has played a role in molding the team who just knocked out the defending champions.
Let’s take a look at three takeaways from how the Lakers did it.
Anthony Davis continuing to be at the center of it all
In a series chock full of adjustments and star power, it was Anthony Davis who ultimately proved to be the trump card.
Davis’ impact sprawled across multiple facets of the game, as his two-way play singlehandedly forced the Warriors into three different starting lineups and countless other tweaks.
Whether it was using his athleticism on offense to play Kevon Looney off the floor or forcing the Warriors to shuffle through a slew of different screeners to pull him away from the paint, this series spotlighted why Davis has been the Forrest Gump of the postseason thus far.
He is the player who continuously finds himself in the middle of the action, even in the instances when it doesn't seem like it. Take this play from Friday night for example:
After a Lakers’ turnover, Donte DiVincenzo has a breakaway opportunity against a wrong-facing Davis. An aggressive attack here, while Davis is in the process of trying to recover and the guard probably scores or at the very least draws a foul. Instead, as if faced with certain doom, DiVincenzo turns away from the basket altogether and looks for help.
A white flag, a moment of surrender, a “please get me out of this situation” plea.
The end result of this possession is a tough Steph Curry jumper over Austin Reaves, but it was Davis who deserves credit for the stop.
It is the quiet moments like these that often can get overlooked over the course of a hard-fought series, given how engulfing Davis can be on the defensive end in particular.
They are however, emblematic of the impact of Davis’ sheer presence on the floor. In the light, or in the shadows, he has to always be accounted for.
After suffering a scary head injury in Game 5 that put his status up in the air, Davis was instrumental in closing out the Warriors in Game 6 with his typical all-encompassing play.
Davis scored 17 points, pulled down 20 rebounds, had 2 blocks (and 2 steals) and was a game-high +31 on the night. Given the nosier performances from others, Davis’ outing was quietly dominant. But it remained the nucleus of the team’s gameplan nevertheless.
With an upcoming date with the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic on the horizon, the Lakers will need Davis — and his ability to be at the center of it all — more than ever.
The melting pot in the backcourt
To borrow some baseball terminology, success in the playoffs can often boil down to how many different pitches you are able to throw at your opponent.
History has shown that throwing a fastball every single at-bat simply doesn't work over the course of a seven-game series. The teams that do typically advance the furthest are the ones who have rosters that are malleable, possess optionality, and have players who can throw some off-speed pitches.
Prior to the trade deadline, the Lakers routinely ran into on-court issues that stemmed from a backcourt that lacked a diverse repertoire. And while they still do not employ an elite guard per se, after the trades made and alterations to the starting lineup, the team does now have several guards who can be useful in different situations.
This series was a perfect encapsulation of this as the Lakers needed nearly all of their guards’ contributions and skillsets in order to advance.
From an offensive standpoint, the likes of Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell (combined for 42 points in Game 6) were relied upon to capitalize within the gaps of the Warriors defense. With Golden State primary playing their bigs in a drop and their perimeter players ice-ing ball screens, there weren't many driving lanes for L.A.’s starting backcourt to get downhill.
This is where their on-ball craft, pull-up ability, and interchangeability was essential in loosening up the defense in the midrange area of the floor.
There are limitations to Reaves and Russell’s games that the Warriors were able to exploit — most notably, their struggles against ball-pressure guards and their general lack of athleticism from the guard spot.
This is where having guards like Dennis Schröder and Lonnie Walker proved critical, as each player has a degree of speed and force that are effective counters against these coverages.
Walker in particular, leveraged his downhill ability and strength in the 4th quarter of Game 4 to unexpectedly lead the Lakers to a win down the stretch.
In Game 6, it was the insertion of Schröder into the starting lineup that gave the group a much needed uptick in foot-speed on the perimeter and someone who could match Draymond Green’s intensity. The latter ultimately got him ejected, but he set an important tone to the game that the Lakers needed.
Each guard not only played a role in the Lakers winning this series, but showed the importance of having a variety of skillsets on a roster. A luxury the team once wasn't privity to, but is now paying major dividends from.
LeBron James, turning back the clock
With the potential of having to play a Game 7 on the road looming, there was no debate that the Lakers needed to shut the door on the Warriors in Los Angeles. In order to do so, they would need LeBron James to look closer like the player he has been over the course of his career compared to the version that has waxed and waned in the series.
To be clear, James was integral in the games in which the Lakers won prior to the Friday’s contest, but there was a degree of tepidness to his play that negatively played into the Warriors’ hands at times. Specifically, his inability to punish their smaller lineups and often settling for a more perimeter based attack.
The Warriors’ defense deserves credit for limiting James’ drives to the cup, but maybe so does his age.
We’ve seen James’ shot profile steer further and further away from the rim as he’s gotten older, which is to be expected to a degree. However, if the Lakers wanted to win this singular game, they needed James to wreck havoc in the paint — which he did.
James attempted seven shots (made 6) at the rim in Game 6, which was the most he’s had all series.
He methodically carved up the Warriors’ defense in the pick-and-roll, exploited mismatches in the post, and in the instances in which the defense loaded up against him, he simply sprayed it across the court to open shooters.
It was the type of vintage performance from James that is a reminder of just how demoralizing he can make a defense feel through the combination of his strength and guile.
From a team perspective, the rest of Lakers followed in James’ assertive footsteps, as 39% of their shots on Friday night came at the rim according to Cleaning the Glass. It was the highest frequency percentage of the series, and a vast improvement over the 17.9% rate they registered in Game 5.
While it is probably safe to assume the Lakers will not get this type of performance from James every game here on out, they will need a certain threshold of aggression and engagement from him to keep their postseason run going.
Friday night was yet another glimpse of the gas James still has left in the tank. Hopefully there’s still enough in reserve to get the Lakers across the finish line.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.