LOS ANGELES — The Lakers could feel their place in the Western Conference finals, their turnaround season ready to continue.
But first, it was going to be the hardest 24 minutes of their season, the second half of Game 6, against the defending NBA champions who were ready to fight for their postseason lives.
The Lakers had just capped the first half in Los Angeles 10 points better than the Warriors thanks to Austin Reaves’ half-court shot that swished through the net at the buzzer.
They’d been the more physical team, they forced the Warriors into fouls and they lived at the free-throw line. They sprinted to a lead, stood firm during a Warriors run and pushed back.
This was their time.
But it was going to be hard – just like LeBron James told his team it would be two weeks earlier.
After the Lakers blew out Memphis to earn their spot in the second round, James sat in the team’s locker room. He had an ice bag on each knee. Another ice bag was wrapped with plastic to his back.
This, he told the Lakers, was level one. Next was level two, and it was going to be tougher.
So with the opportunity in front of them to advance to the Western Conference finals, the man who gave that message preached his greatness on the floor.
Led by James’ relentless attacking, the Lakers eliminated the Golden State Warriors on Friday night 122-101. James scored 30 points, his first 30-plus scoring game in the postseason since Game 5 of the 2020 NBA Finals. He had nine rebounds, nine assists, two steals and a block.
They undid every run, they owned every inch of the court and they did something no one has done – eliminated a Steve Kerr-coached Warriors team from the playoffs before the NBA Finals.
Anthony Davis left Game 5 after a shot to the head, casting some doubt on his availability for Friday night. But after a normal pregame routine, Davis never showed any signs of discomfort, playing the kind of dominant defensive game that has defined his postseason. He had 17 points, 20 rebounds and two blocks.
Reaves scored 23.
The Western Conference finals will begin Tuesday in Denver against the Nuggets.
The Lakers are the second Western Conference No. 7 seed to make the conference finals, joining the 1986-87 Seattle SuperSonics.
For the first time this postseason, the Lakers swapped their starting lineup, moving backup point guard Dennis Schroder into the first five for Jarred Vanderbilt, who had missed his 10 previous field-goal attempts over the series – a stretch dating to early in the second half of the third quarter of Game 2.
“He thrives when he gets in that flow,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said of Vanderbilt.“He’s a high-energy player. It’s changed a little bit because at the outset of the series he had a huge, huge task in trying to guard Steph (Curry) and slow Steph down a little bit. And so I think the best thing for Vando is just to attack the game with his energy.”
Schroder gave the Lakers an immediate boost.
The team led by 15 before Curry finally scored, the arena rocking with the early ingredients of a blowout ready to cook.
But Curry wouldn’t let the Warriors fold.
He scored 11 quick points, ensuring the Warriors would have a shot.
The Lakers, though, didn’t panic, playing with a mostly consistent sense of urgency and focus, minus some ill-advised jumpers and turnovers. The Lakers valued each point so much that D’Angelo Russell pumped his fist when Lonnie Walker IV made a free throw in the second quarter.
After Reaves’ half-court shot, he shouted “Come on. Let’s f------ go.”
It was necessary advice. If they stayed still, the Warriors would probably push past.
Reaves set the tone early in the third, hitting a 3-pointer off an offensive rebound and looking into the crowd where his family was sitting with owner Jeanie Buss.
The lead ballooned to as many as 19, even after officials ejected Schroder after his second technical foul of the game. But the Warriors still moved forward, thanks mostly to Curry. The Lakers hit the same kinds of shots that broke Memphis, but Golden State still pushed.
The 19-point lead became 11, but for every Warrior run, the Lakers answered.
Curry finished with 32 points – the only Golden State starter in double figures. Klay Thompson was just three for 19. And Andrew Wiggins, a game-time decision with a rib injury, scored only six.
The Lakers kept going, pushing the lead to as many as 24 before the Warriors made their last desperate stand. A flurry of threes cut the lead to 17, but Reaves was there to hit another three, just like he did to open those final 24 minutes.
Then, because defense has been the reason all of this happened, James raced into the passing lane to get a steal. He pushed for a fast break. He passed to Davis, who drew a foul and stumbled toward the court.
James was there to catch them.
“I got you,” he told Davis. “I got you.”
Friday, he got them all.