The Los Angeles Lakers enter the Western Conference Finals Friday, making their first appearance at the latter stages of the playoffs in 10 years. Impressive as the semifinals of the NBA playoffs sound and feel, the Lakers’ journey to a title is only halfway complete—the easier half at that.
“Job’s not finished,” Kobe Bryant famously uttered when his Lakers were up 2-0 in the 2009 NBA Finals, just two wins from a title. ”Job finished? No, I don’t think so.”
In a season that has been dedicated to the Lakers great’s memory following a tragic helicopter crash in January, Bryant’s stone-faced, slightly angered response 11 years, three months and 12 days before Friday’s tip-off could not be more relevant.
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Entering Friday’s series opener, the Lakers have eight playoff wins. They need eight more to win the first—and possibly only—NBA bubble championship. The final eight wins, it’s worth mentioning, are significantly harder than the first eight.
Four teams get those first eight wins, two teams get up to 12 wins, but only one team gets to 16.
Entering the conference finals, the Lakers are the clear favorites to hoist the Larry O'Brian trophy with odds makers, experts, fans and nine out of 10 dentists. Standing in their way is a resilient Denver Nuggets team that has come back to win both its playoffs series 4-3 after trailing 3-1—after playing two seven-game series last playoffs. This Nuggets don't quit, clearly.
Leading Denver is an unassuming, rather awkward moving 7-foot giant in Nikola Jokic, who shares the “Joker” nickname with Serbian compatriot Novak Jokovic of tennis fame.
“I’m patient because I cannot really run fast,” Jokic recently explained when he was asked about his remarkable ability to remain patient and make the correct decisions on the court and seemingly appearing to be in a rush. “That’s my only option.”
Similar to James, Jokic passes like he can see the future and regularly flirts with getting triple-doubles like they are his favorite customized order at In-N-Out--fried mustard and grilled whole onion with chilies. To beat the LA Clippers last series, the 7-footer ended Game 7 with gaudy numbers: 16 points, 22 rebounds and 13 assists, along with three blocks and two steals. That stat line helps explain why Jokic was selected as a second team All-NBA player last week.
Sure, the Clippers collapsed, but Kawhi Leonard and company would probably still be standing if Jokic didn’t break them down.
While Jokic’s passing and intelligence, in particular, earn comparisons to James, the 35-year-old Lakers’ superstar has been causing his own dimension of damage during these playoffs.
Thus far, James has been without question the standout performer of the 2020 NBA postseason.
After starting the playoffs with a defeat where he posted a triple-double of 23 points, 17 rebounds and 16 assists, James scored over 30 points in three of the next four games. To pop the Blazers' bubble in five games, James averaged a triple-double of 27.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 10.2 assists.
Against Houston, the Lakers again dropped the opening game of the series and were staring at an 0-2 deficit as they trailed in the fourth quarter of Game 2. James led the charge with eight points, two blocks, a steal, three rebounds and a couple of assists in the final 12 minutes--though that will probably be best remembered as the Rajon “Playoff” Rondo game of the series.
Revisionist history suggests the Rockets immediately folded in the series, but Game 3—the Lakers’ sixth and most important win of the postseason thus far—featured Russell Westbrook scoring 30 points on better than 50% shooting and James Harden scoring 33 points.
Only, the best player in that game was James. “King James” scored 36 points and hit four of his nine three pointers on the night, along with batting four blocks and grabbing a steal, as the Lakers’ stout defense outscored the Rockets by 10 points in the final quarter for the second game running.
Without James’ offensive output and dead-eye shooting in Game 3, the Lakers would likely have trailed 2-1, with that series possibly going sideways in a hurry. To eliminate doubt that James has been the best player in the playoffs, he followed up that offensive flurry by coming within one assist of a triple-double in the Lakers’ seventh win, before logging 29 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block in only 31 minutes to launch the Rockets into orbit and land the Lakers into the penultimate round of the playoffs.
By any measure, 35-year-old James isn't just playing at an absurd level for his age but in spite of it.
The Lakers were the best team in the Western Conference during the regular season, so making the Western Conference Finals is not even a slightly shocking development. The recent optimism about the team’s title chances increased dramatically when the Clippers failed to knock out the Nuggets despite taking a 3-1 series lead—and leading by sizable double-digits in the second halves of two of those three games.
The Clippers’ exit in embarrassing fashion led to hoards of Lakers’ fans dancing on their graves online, but that elation and exuberance—in part at least—came from a place of genuine relief that the Lakers would not have to face the Clippers. After all, the Clippers matched up well and split the four meetings this season.
Alas, the Clippers’ amusing yet sad demise made the Lakers clear favorites to go all the way and win a 17th title.
LA’s status as the favorite has as much to do with James as it does with Anthony Davis. The 27-year-old 6-foot 10-inch forward is a first team All-NBA player and was, by most measures, the best player on the Lakers during the regular season: points, rebounds, blocks and steals.
The Lakers’ greatest strength is their ability to shut teams down and stop them from scoring for long stretches, with Davis’ disruptive defense pivotal to such an extent that he finished runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.
The Lakers have the two best players in the series—in the playoffs if one wants to zoom out and examine the larger picture. Jokic is an All-NBA player and presents significant challenges, but he alone would offer Denver almost no hope.
The wild card, of course, is Denver’s point guard: Jamal Murray. The sixth pick in the 2016 NBA Draft scored 50 points twice and averaged 31.6 points on 49% shooting from distance in the first round. The 23-year-old is also particularly disliked by segments of Lakers’ fans due to past comparisons with former Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell, but Murray's performances in these playoffs have surpassed just about anyone's expectations.
The Canadian did struggle to get going in the second round, as the Clippers held Murray to fewer than 20 points in all three of Denver’s losses en route to a 3-1 series lead. In Denver’s four wins, Murray averaged 28.5 points per game—including a 40-point Game 7 performance that put a full stop on the Clippers’ season.
The supporting casts of both teams will likely play meaningful roles over the course of the series, but if James can continue his warpath and Davis can hold down the defense, there's no reason the Lakers can't beat the Nuggets--and whichever team makes it out of the Eastern Conference for that matter.
Still, it is far from time to celebrate: “Job’s not finished."