LOS ANGELES — The Lakers started the season eight games under .500. Now they’re four wins away from the NBA Finals.
Los Angeles took down the defending champion Golden State Warriors, 122-101, in Game 6 to advance to the Western Conference finals. The No. 7-seeded Lakers will go on the road to play the West’s top seed, the Denver Nuggets, in Game 1 on Tuesday.
The Lakers started the season 2-10 under first-year coach Darvin Ham and completely overhauled the roster midway through the year thanks to a flurry of trades by vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka. They became just the fourth team in league history to be that many games below .500 and reach the conference finals since conferences were instated in the 1970-71 season, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.
“I felt like if we ever had an opportunity to upgrade our roster and put some more balance around myself and (Anthony Davis), I felt like we could make a run,” LeBron James said, looking back at L.A.’s rocky start.
Their run continued Friday with a vintage performance from James.
James had 30 points on 10-for-14 shooting, 9 rebounds and 9 assists as he snapped a personal streak of 18 straight playoff games scoring under 30 points.
With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — the man James passed as the league’s all-time leading scorer in February — sitting in the second row at Crypto.com Arena, James joined Abdul-Jabbar as the only other player aged 38 or older to put up at least 30 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in a playoff game.
“I just wanted to come in and make some plays and be efficient and defend at a high level and help (Davis) rebound,” James said. “Help our team make winning plays. And I was able to make a few of them.”
As the Lakers have done all postseason, Friday night was a strong performance by L.A. coming on the heels of a disappointing loss.
The Lakers jumped out to a 27-10 lead with Ham’s starting lineup shift — Dennis Schroder replacing Jarred Vanderbilt — sparking the offensive jolt. Davis, who left Game 5 early after taking an inadvertent shot to the side of the head, was locked in from the start, with nine of his 17 points and 10 of his 20 rebounds coming in the opening frame.
But the Warriors, behind their reigning Finals MVP Stephen Curry, cut it to five by the start of the second quarter. Curry scored 12 of his team-high 32 points in the opening frame, while his team struggled to find its rhythm against the Lakers’ defense (3-for-14 from 3).
The Lakers doubled the lead to 10 by halftime, 56-46, with Austin Reaves’ half-court heave falling through the net to beat the second-quarter buzzer. Reaves would finish with 23 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds — one of five Lakers in double figures.
“It felt good,” Reaves said of his 54-foot make to end the half. “You don’t make many of those, but it did feel good when I shot it.”
L.A. kept up the pressure to start the third and quickly pushed its cushion to 19 with 7:35 remaining in the quarter — the Lakers’ largest lead yet.
Schroder picked up his second technical foul and was ejected after a confrontation with Draymond Green, opening the door for more playing time for Game 4 hero Lonnie Walker IV, who scored 8 of his 13 points in the third.
The Lakers took a 14-point lead in the fourth, and the Warriors cut it to 11 before L.A. responded with an 11-0 run to double its edge. Ham emptied his bench in the final minutes as the Laker crowd got to celebrate the 42nd conference finals berth in team history.
The Lakers are only the second No. 7 seed to reach the conference finals since seeding began in 1984, joining the 1987 Seattle SuperSonics.
“A challenging year to say the least, but at the end of the day, we kept powering through, our vibes stayed positive, once we righted the ship and switched out some pieces, we came together and I’m just happy and thankful that I get to sit in this seat and enjoy the ride,” Ham said.
The Lakers are now 7-0 at home this postseason, counting the play-in tournament. They snapped the Warriors’ streak of 28 straight playoff series with at least one road win.
It will be James’ 12th conference finals appearance. His teams are 10-1 so far, his only loss coming with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009, when they lost to the Orlando Magic in six games.
The win secured James his 41st postseason series win of his 20-year career, breaking a tie with Derek Fisher for the most all time.
L.A.’s leaders sound like they aren’t done yet, either. Asked if James felt like the Lakers were now playing with house money, making it this far after such a difficult beginning, James balked at the idea.
“We’re trying to win every hand,” James said.
Davis, sitting next to James as he has all postseason, doubled down.
“That’s ya’ll expectation,” Davis said. “Our expectations inside (the team) are way higher than showing up to the Western Conference finals.”