The road to repeat for a reigning Champion is never easy. Fraught with peril and always tumultuous, the tale of the 2020-21 Lakers is no different. The team's dynamic superstar duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed a combined 63 games with injuries this season. The Lakers starting lineup on the floor against the Warriors on Wednesday had only played in three previous games together.
So it was only fitting that the 48-minute, back-and-forth battle on the court would be a microcosm of the Lakers season in a single game.
The Lakers started the game frigid from the field. James, Davis, and starting point guard Dennis Schröder were a combined 4-for-31 in the first half, and it didn't help that nobody else on the team could hit a shot on offense either.
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By the time Drake and actor Michael B. Jordan found their courtside seats early in the first quarter, the Lakers were already down double-digits. Steph Curry hadn't even started cooking yet, but a buzzer-beater at the end of the second quarter gave the Warriors a 55-42 lead at halftime. It even prompted some fans in attendance to chant "MVP!" for the NBA's leading scorer this season as both teams headed into the locker room for intermission.
But the tale of an NBA game cannot be told in just one half or 24 minutes. It's a four-chapter narrative that requires all 48 minutes to come to close.
Just like a boxer who gets knocked down in the first round, the Lakers went into the locker room at halftime, battered and bruised, but not out. They regrouped, and in the second half came out swinging, taking the fight to the Warriors.
"Mike Tyson always said, 'Everybody has a plan until you get in the ring and get punched,' and get punched we did. It's good to get that first punch," said James. "We took that punch, and it settled us. We were able to bring the fight to them in the second half."
Led by James and Davis, the Lakers looked completely different in the second half, and similar to a locomotive steadily heading downhill and picking up speed, once they got going, there was no stopping this train.
James finished with a triple-double, scoring 22 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, and dishing out 10 assists, as the Lakers came roaring back to defeat the Warriors, 103-100 in the NBA's inaugural play-in tournament on Wednesday night.
The victory claimed the seventh seed in the Western Conference for the Lakers, and they now will face the Phoenix Suns on Sunday in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. The Warriors will now have to square off with the Memphis Grizzlies, who defeated the San Antonio Spurs 100-96 earlier on Wednesday, in a single elimination game on Friday at Chase Center in San Francisco.
“This is a bitter pill to swallow. This was our game and we couldn’t get it done,” said Warriors' head coach Steve Kerr.
LeBron James did not look 100 percent healthy in the game as he continues to recover from a high right ankle sprain suffered against the Atlanta Hawks on March 20. After missing a total of 27 games, James returned to the starting lineup last week in Indiana, but rolled his ankle in the regular season finale on Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans.
"It's been a while since we've played in the postseason, so we had to catch up to that," said James. "Once we were able to make adjustments in the second half, we brought the fight to them, and were able to pull out the victory."
Davis also doesn't look 100 percent. The Lakers' big man is still trying to find his rhythm and get his legs back from a midseason Achilles' strain that saw him miss half of the 72 games this season.
"It's been a challenge for sure this entire season," said Davis. "From guys missing games because of COVID, and LeBron and myself missing a lot of games from injuries. It's just going to make it all worth it in the end. This is a challenge, and a fun one. We're up for the challenge."
In addition to the poor shooting, it was the little things that made the Lakers look uncomfortable in the first half. The number one rated defense in the NBA this season wasn't boxing out, they weren’t rotating on defense in order to close out on shooters, and on offense they looked stagnant and stale.
The Warriors capitalized on it.
Led by Curry and Andrew Wiggins the Warriors were up double-digits for most of the first half. The two-time NBA MVP, and finalist again this season, finished with a game-high 37 points. Wiggins had 21, and Kent Bazemore chipped in 10.
"In the first half we were playing hesitant," admitted Davis. "We've been here before, so we said 'let's go play our style of basketball in the second half.' I think we had to find our swag."
Thanks to a halftime speech by veterans Jared Dudley and Markieff Morris in the locker room, they did.
"When guys like that speak you listen," said James.
On defense, the Lakers threw everything at Curry, including the kitchen sink. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope picked him up full court, Schröder chased him around it, and LA doubled him nearly every time he stepped over the half-court line. None of it worked.
"The guy is flat out unbelievable," said Lakers' head coach Frank Vogel. "We threw the kitchen sink at him, and he still had 37…we're fortunate to get this W [Win]."
For the entirety of the first half, with a hobbled LeBron, and an ice-cold Davis, the Lakers couldn't stop the hottest player in the NBA right now. Curry was 6-for-9 from beyond the arc in the contest, for a scorching 67 percent from three.
In the second half, the Lakers came out aggressive and cut the lead down to just one at 57-56 after a Schröder three-pointer with 8:47 left in the third quarter. But the Warriors went on a 13-4 run to go back up by 12 midway through the quarter.
As the Lakers chipped away at the lead, the 6,022 in attendance at Staples Center grew louder and louder. A cacophony of purple and gold faithful whose voices reached a fever pitch with every basket that brought the Lakers closer.
The Lakers opened the fourth quarter on a 10-0 run and briefly took their biggest lead of the game, 83-79 with 10:23 remaining.
Both teams took turns exchanging knockout blows, trading leads until James drained a 34-foot three-pointer to beat the shot clock that gave the Lakers a 103-100 lead with just 58 seconds remaining.
"I looked up at the shot clock, and I saw I had to get it up," said James of the shot. "The second thing I saw was three rims in front of me because I got poked in the eye on the previous possession. So I just aimed for the middle one."
After both teams missed three-pointers, the Warriors took a timeout to setup a play for Curry with 2.1 seconds left. Bazemore tried to find Curry off the inbound, but Caldwell-Pope stole the pass and ran down the court as the final buzzer sounded, streams of purple and gold falling down upon the crowd.
Davis finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds. Schröder had 12 points, but was a negative -20 while on the court. Ironically, the Lakers best player on Wednesday might have been the undrafted Alex Caruso, who scored 14 big points and was assigned the difficult task of guarding Curry down the stretch.
"He was awesome all night long," Vogel said of Caruso.
The Lakers and Suns will tip-off at 12:30PM PT in Phoenix on Sunday.