Defining Moments of the Lakers Championship Run: Regular Season
The “NBA Bubble” resulted in a viewing experience unlike anything ever seen. Title favorites such as the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers wilted under traditional postseason pressure compounded by the strange, new circumstances. That gave way to unprecedented runs by gritty teams like the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets. Despite all of the year’s twists and turns, the Los Angeles Lakers championship journey ended in the best possible way – with champagne, tears, and good times at Disneyland. The foundation was laid in the regular season.
Defining Moments of the Lakers Championship
The Regular Season
Opening Night Loss to the Clippers
All of the hype stemming from an off-season for the ages came together in Lakers vs. Clippers on opening night. The Lakers now had LeBron James and Anthony Davis, while the Clippers brought in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and most of their playoff-worthy team from before. With each team rolling out their improved, star-laced lineups, the Clippers claimed victory in the first battle 112-102. The kicker was, they did this with Paul George sitting due to injury.
Some of the reactions were panicked and swift. The Clippers were undermanned and still won by ten. Kawhi Leonard was looking strong and healthy as ever, while the Clipper’s team defense kept a lid on the Laker’s superstar duo. It was an all-time night for people who enjoy reacting after small sample sizes.
At first glance, it seemed like there were justified reasons for panic. The Clippers’ defense looked fierce, their role players hit shots, and they were able to beat the Lakers without Paul George. Looking back on it, the loss mainly came from the Lakers not knowing how to operate yet. They were starting off with an almost entirely new roster and coach, while the Clippers had a fair amount of continuity. They had the Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams pick and roll, plus a slew of returning role players who knew their scheme.
The game set the narrative that the Clippers were still a peg above the Lakers until proven otherwise. Whether the Lakers themselves believed that or not was a different question. It was an attempt to set the stage for a Western Conference Finals “Battle for LA” that never happened.
Lakers Establish Defensive Identity in Seven Straight Wins
This next stretch of games taught us when this team got down, they didn’t stay down for very long. While the Lakers still struggled to find their offensive rhythm in the very next game against the Utah Jazz, it was clear that Anthony Davis could make this team special defensively. Bouncing back after adversity and spectacular defense leading to offense were trends that would carry them the distance through the playoffs. Even if their half-court offense struggled, they could always regain the upper hand if they played swarming, aggressive defense. That in itself gave them energy on offense in the form of transition buckets.
In the second half of this Jazz game, Anthony Davis absolutely locked up reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert. Gobert only got one basket in the second half after getting an easy lane for lobs in the first. Davis was getting anything he wanted offensively. Meanwhile, he totally shut down the paint as the Lakers earned their first win of the season. The next six games were a defensive clinic, as the Lakers held opponents to 97.14 points per game. Their best effort came in an 80-point shutdown against the Miami Heat.
First Road Win Against the Nuggets (December 3rd)
This was the first win against a top-flight team in a hostile environment. Not to mention Anthony Davis had to play sick in a high-elevation city – which exacerbates dehydration. Nikola Jokic was relatively quiet in this big man battle, checking out with only 13 points. The night was punctuated by Davis getting key late-game stops against Jamal Murray and Jokic. He even needed an IV at halftime to get him through the game.
Pulling off a road win against a team like the Denver Nuggets was a certified confidence builder. It was their first real test against another team with rivaled talent top to bottom. Denver was the highest quality opponent they had played since opening night against the Clippers, which made this their biggest win of the season yet.
Four-Game Losing Streak (December 17th-25th)
The Lakers faced their first prolonged stretch of adversity when they lost four straight against the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, and LA Clippers. With the exception of the Pacers, the Lakers lost to three top-tier opponents. They were fighting through injuries to LeBron and Davis, but the losses still drew up questions about their depth. Even though they defeated Denver earlier, this reinforced the burgeoning narrative that the Lakers couldn’t pull off wins against teams of the Bucks and Clippers’ caliber.
They lost decisively against Milwaukee 111-104 and blew a game against the Clippers where they looked like a better team up until the end. The Clipper loss, in particular, was a gut punch. The team had grown so much since opening day, but it still wasn’t enough to take the win. It was a reminder that despite their perceived growth, the guys needed to lock in as a whole to hit a higher gear against the upper echelon. It’ll take more than just Anthony Davis and LeBron James. That game was a mid-season lesson that they’d take into the playoffs.
After this losing streak, they got things back on track with nine straight wins and several other win streaks into the spring. But the threat of the Clippers and Bucks was still looming. Not everyone would recognize the Lakers as the true favorite until they conquered their two biggest foes.
The Death of Kobe
It’s an understatement to say that the tragic death of Kobe Bryant rattled the Lakers organization, but words couldn’t even begin to describe how devastated they were. The grief quickly spread beyond the team, as players and fans from opposing teams grappled with an existential event greater than basketball. It went beyond the sports media world, as people who weren’t even into sports became affected by the loss. It was one of those moments where people will look back and clearly remember where they were and what they were doing when the news broke.
Despite his obvious ties to the Lakers, Bryant had strong ties with the younger generation of players. Guys like Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Bradley Beal, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony were inspired and/or directly mentored by Kobe. Even on this Laker team, people like LeBron, Davis, Quinn Cook, and Dwight Howard were especially devastated given their history of playing with or rooting for Kobe and the Lakers. The pain brought the guys together even closer than they already were.
It would’ve been impossible to not feel some extra motivation to win it for Kobe. He was such a symbol of motivation on his own. How could one not try harder to win it all in the name of their fallen hero, who wore the jersey they now wore?
The first game after Kobe’s death was postponed, but it resulted in a loss against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center. Damian Lillard‘s lights-out performance was the true tribute to Bryant, but the Lakers knew the ultimate goal.
Back-to-Back Wins Against the Bucks and Clippers
At the start of March, the Lakers officially had their groove back. They were at the top of the West with a record of 47-13. The Lakers were now tasked with playing their two biggest competitors on the same weekend. They would face Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks at Staples Center on Friday, and the rival Clippers on Sunday. One could tell from the urgency in the Lakers that this pair of games meant more than most. These were practically playoff games.
The Lakers went back and forth with the Bucks until the early third quarter. Then, James and Davis took control putting their team at an arms distance. They held a near-ten point lead all the way through the fourth with James tallying 37 points in a 103-113 win. The biggest perceived Eastern Conference threat – and a major challenger for the “Best in the Game” in throne – were thwarted in an all-out show of muscle by the Lakeshow.
They followed that with a similar display of force in a 112-103 victory against Kawhi and the Clippers. This time, Kawhi and company had the full squad at their disposal. Going into that game, the Clippers were undefeated when everyone was healthy. They would retain that record for the rest of the season, with the Lakers being their only loss against a full team.
What stuck out about this game was how LeBron took over crunch time. In their highest stakes game yet, he just took the rock to the hole and laid it in every time his team needed it. Sometimes when LeBron isn’t being aggressive in the first three quarters it seems like he’s off. It was a reminder that if his team needs a bucket, he can still power through and get one.
The two wins had the Lakers on top of the basketball world in the national discourse. No matter how much manufactured or legitimate concern there was, it was apparent they’d figured something out.
Early Struggles in the Bubble
The Lakers were playing their best basketball of the year right when the pandemic hit. It couldn’t have arrived at a worse time for them and their momentum. They tried to get things back on track despite the gap in play. They wanted to make good on the work they already put in.
Tried as they might, the Lakers just couldn’t get their shots to fall in the early bubble. They were shooting poorly enough to question if it was the same team we saw in the regular season. When the Lakers shooters weren’t making their shots, the offense just completely fell apart. It was a clunky mess of bricks coupled with LeBron trying to do too much in a packed paint.
They eventually won enough games to secure the one-seed that they fought so hard to get in the regular season. Home court advantage didn’t mean a thing in the Orlando bubble. Still, earning the top spot in the West felt like wrapping up unfinished business. We were onto the playoffs.