Defining Moments of the Lakers Championship Run: Playoffs
With the regular season in the rear-view, the Los Angeles Lakers were ready to prove all doubters wrong. Perceptions for this title favorite were more varied than expected. Plenty of oddsmakers, insiders, and fans gave them the appropriate respect. Though even with Anthony Davis and LeBron James in tow, there was a steady slew of detractors who questioned their ability to get it done on the biggest stage. Their regular season was enough to make them championship contenders. The playoffs would present the chance to cement these Lakers as championship players.
Defining Moments of the Lakers Championship Run
Game 2 Against Portland
Before the first round began, the Portland Trail Blazers were lauded as one of the strongest eight-seeds in history. Damian Lillard was in his prime and playing out of his mind. The Blazers also got Jusuf Nurkic back from a devastating foot injury from the year prior. Portland’s seed was low, but with a healthy squad, this Blazers squad would’ve potentially placed fifth or sixth.
Portland carried their momentum into a Game 1 upset over the Lakers. The Lakers still hadn’t gotten their shooting back on track, so there were real questions about how good they were going to be in these playoffs. Was having no crowd affecting their performance? Were the bricks related to depth perception in an arena with no fans? If they stayed cold, could they actually lose? Nothing was certain, but what was a certainty was that Damian Lillard was in an undeniable groove. The dancing was going to come back to bite him though.
Game 2’s 111-88 Laker victory eased any concerns about whether or not the Lakers had it in them. Anthony Davis finished with 30 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists while LeBron only needed to score ten to take out the Blazers. Game 3 was a little more competitive, but it was that Game 2 whooping that set the tone for the series.
Game 2 was significant because it was their first dominant showing of the playoffs. They held the highest-scoring team in the bubble to less than 90 points. It represented the Lakers breaking through their funk, and set a standard for the team that would often battle complacency. If they came out with that level of focus and aggression on the defensive end and made their threes at least at an average clip, no team in the league could keep up with them. LA completed the gentleman’s sweep and took out the Blazers in five. Onto the next one, the style-pushing Houston Rockets
Playoff Rondo Arrives Against Houston
Throughout his career, words like, “mercurial”, “enigma”, and even “genius” often latch themselves to Rajon Rondo. These words never hold more weight than when the playoffs come around. That’s when “Playoff Rondo” comes out to play, and we all end up scratching our heads wondering why he’s draining over 40 percent of his threes and randomly defending like Tony Allen.
A recent Rondo interview sheds light on what lets him rise to the occasion when the playoffs start. The man’s IQ for the game is so high, and having the ability to face a team more than once gives him the time to break down and counter and opposing team’s strategies – as opposed to one-game regular season meets.
The Rockets managed to pull off a Game 1 win after their 7-game slugfest with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Perhaps the Lakers were a bit rusty after their extended layoff. Maybe they just needed a feel-out game. Whatever the case, it only took one game for Rondo to shake off months of rust and download the competition. Rondo stepped up as arguably the Laker’s third-best player for the rest of the playoffs. It all started with Houston.
AD Nails Buzzer Beater in the Mamba Jerseys
Against Houston and Portland, the Lakers came out flat in both series openers. The team broke tradition by coming to play in Game 1 against Denver. They laid the comeback kids out to the tune of a 126-114 victory. In Game 2, the Nuggets play was considerably sharper. It now felt like the Western Conference Finals had begun.
Denver stayed within five to ten for the first 40 minutes of play, which was right in their sweet spot. The Nuggets always seemed to be at their most dangerous when they were within striking distance with the closing minutes rearing their heads. Right on cue, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic flipped an eight-point deficit with three minutes to go into an unbelievable one-point lead. One minute remaining – nut crunch time was among us.
What followed in the final minute was a masterclass in high-stakes big man work by Jokic and Anthony Davis. Jokic struck first with a three at the top of the perimeter. A few possessions later, AD pump-faked at the arc and sank a floater to recapture the lead. Thirty seconds to play. Then with the Nuggets needing a score, Jokic straight-up disrespects AD by backing him down from the mid-post to the restricted area for an easy lay-in. Nuggets up one, the Serbian made it look effortless.
With 20 seconds to go and the shot clock off, the Lakers were a bucket away from the comfort of a 2-0 series lead or the heat of a 1-1 tie. LA ran a clunky ATO but couldn’t get their shot to fall. They retained possession with 2.1 seconds to go. Lakers take it out with the game on the line, and Mason Plumlee loses his defensive assignment on Anthony Davis. That freed him for a turnaround jumper above the arc. With the balance of the series hanging in the air, AD squares up and drains it as the buzzer blares – like a cold-blooded seven-foot assassin. All while mouthing, “KOBE!”, in the black mamba jerseys no less.
LeBron’s Defense Stifles Murray in Game 4
LeBron James had plenty of fantastic performances leading up to games four and five of the Nuggets series. Whenever it felt like Portland or Houston were gaining momentum, LeBron would turn it up in the fourth whether it was through scoring, playmaking, or defense to keep the team at arm’s length.
By Game 4, the Nuggets had captured a win to bring them within one of a tied series. Murray was in full form, and Jokic had seen enough to know how to attack the Laker’s weaknesses on defense. Murray was particularly unstoppable as we entered the home stretch of Game 4. This caused LeBron to ask for the assignment of guarding Murray.
The Lakers guards were rotating, and they made Murray work for his shots. But Murray was just too hot to be stopped by someone the same size as him. Enter the 6’9 mass of LeBron James with the focus of a decisive playoff win in sight. James used all his tricks gained from 17 years of service to challenge Murray just the right amount in just the right places to make him miss. A late-game slow-motion replay showed James may have fouled Murray on a drive, but given the time remaining and speed of the play in real-time, Murray didn’t get the call. Lakers get the narrow win, 114-108.
LeBron Assassinates the Nuggets in Game 5
The Nuggets had come back down 3-1 twice in this playoffs, making them the first team to ever do that in the same year. They were now tasked with doing it a third time against their toughest opponent yet. Not to mention, LeBron has the best record in closeout games in league history (39-11).
The game itself was another recipe for a run by this dangerous Denver team. It stayed within ten most of the time, then the Nuggets tied it in the final seconds of the third. The Lakers knew Denver was going to make them earn it every step of the way.
Just like Game 4, this match and series were decided by the actions of LeBron. James finished with a Herculean line of 38 points, 16 rebounds, and ten assists on 15 of 28 from the field. What was even more impressive was the way he sank bucket after bucket in the final minutes to put a swift, quiet end to any Nugget’s hope for a run.
Throughout his career, people have criticized him for not closing in the “give me the damn ball” style of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Sure, he may have had passive late-game moments when he was younger, but he’s been able to close games with his offense for a long time now. Until the Finals began, that talk was put on hold.
Anthony Davis Switches onto Jimmy Butler
With the Finals in full swing, the Lakers jumped out to a 2-0 lead behind team-wide two-way brilliance. Miami was known for defending with zone through these playoffs, which the Lakers carved up in Games 1 and 2. The Heat switched to a man-on-man scheme in Game 3, and that mixup plus the incredible play of Jimmy Butler got Miami on the board with a victory. Not bad for an undermanned Heat team.
With the Heat discovering their rhythm, the Lakers had to throw a new look at them defensively. Anthony Davis had been able to contest wings and guards on the perimeter all year long. His incredible instincts, timing, and ability to recover combined with his length make him a patently unfair defensive weapon. In the way that LeBron dominates every department on offense, Davis does so on D. Naturally, Davis asked for the assignment of the Heat’s best player in this make-or-break game.
Butler and Miami saw this and countered by getting Davis off Butler with pick and roll switches. The Lakers then countered by having Davis sag off Jimmy, which made switches harder for Miami to get. Davis stayed glued to Butler every time he took the floor, which led to a tight six-point victory for LA. To put a bow on it, Davis made a dagger three to put the Lakers up nine with 39 seconds to play. You couldn’t have asked for anything else from the big man. LA was one win away from the chip.
The Lakers Seal the NBA Title with Team Defense
It resulted in one of the most staggering defensive performances ever seen. They held the Miami Heat to only 36 points in the entire first half (16 in the second quarter), good enough for a 64-36 halftime lead. Thanks to garbage time, the final score (106-93) wasn’t indicative of how lopsided it truly was. The Lakers were NBA champions and the clear best team in the league when they gave their all to the defense.