LOS ANGELES — All game long, Golden State played inspired defense. Draymond Green bottled up Anthony Davis as much as anyone could, and when the Lakers were forced into the halfcourt they found it tough to generate good looks. Los Angeles’ 104.1 offensive rating for the night was 6.7 below their season average.
But the Lakers have LeBron James.
With a minute to go and the game tied at 100, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got boxed in by Green in the paint and was forced to kick the ball out to LeBron 30 feet from the rim with 1.8 seconds left on the shot clock — it was great defense leading to a desperation shot.
It didn’t matter.
BRON HUGE THREE 🤯 pic.twitter.com/MmbwXTPGNz
— NBA TV (@NBATV) May 20, 2021
“The first thing I did when KCP kicked it out, I looked up at the clock and saw I had to get it up and get it on the rim,” LeBron said of his game-winning shot.
“Then I looked and saw three rims after getting poked in the eye on the previous play [a foul by Green]. I just aimed for the middle one.”
“I think we need to poke LeBron in the eye more if he hits shots like that,” Anthony Davis joked.
The Lakers overcame a sloppy and uninspired first half — and an impressive 37 points from Stephen Curry — to come back with small lineups and beat the Warriors 103-100 in a postseason instant classic, even if it was a play-in game. This was high-end playoff-level basketball.
With the win the Lakers become the seven seed and will face Chris Paul and the Suns in the first round starting Sunday in Phoenix.
The Warriors will have to get over this heartbreak fast; they fly home to the Bay Area where Friday night they will host the Grizzlies on Friday night in a play-in game where the winner advances as the No. 8 seed and the loser is done for the year.
“This was a bitter pill to swallow,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “This was our game and we couldn’t get it done.”
The Warriors, wearing their “We Believe” throwback jerseys, came out of the gates hot and raced out to a 12-4 lead. From the opening tip, the Lakers threw the defensive kitchen sink at Curry, doubling him at every turn, throwing multiple defenders at him, and early on the other Warriors took advantage of that space and were hitting shots. Andrew Wiggins had 22 points on the night, for example.
The bigger concern in the first half for Los Angeles was a passive offense in the face of an aggressive Warriors defense — LeBron and Davis were settling early, not attacking the paint, and the Warriors took advantage. The Lakers’ huge size advantage didn’t matter if Los Angeles wasn’t getting the ball inside and exploiting it.
Plus, Curry was doing Curry things.
STEPH AT THE BUZZER… UNREALpic.twitter.com/Y00SMbg7FM
— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) May 20, 2021
“We just had to bring the fight to the fight….” LeBron said of the Laker locker room at halftime, adding that veterans Jared Dudley and Markieff Morris were the players using their vices to call people out “[The Warriors] came out ready to fight, we had to catch up with that.”
The Lakers did to start the second, opening with a 14-2 run where they got the lead down to one, but the Warriors settled themselves, Curry hit some threes, and the lead was back up to 12. The Warriors looked comfortable.
That’s when Frank Vogel changed the game by going to his strength: He sat Andre Drummond, didn’t put Montrezl Harrell in (as he had in the first half), and finally went with Anthony Davis at center. In those minutes, Alex Caruso and Wesley Matthews also stepped up with great defense, and the Lakers went on a 25-7 run that changed the game.
With that smaller lineup, the Lakers both ran more — all season they have been their best in transition — and were getting the ball inside for easy buckets because the floor was better spaced. The Warriors helped the Lakers out by shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers, 20 of them on the night (leading to 29 Lakers points). Davis led the Lakers on the night with 25 points but needed 24 shots to get there.
This game was tight down the stretch, the lead going back and forth through the final five minutes. It felt like a game that could come down to one big shot, and Curry had hit a few of those in recent weeks.
Wednesday night it was LeBron’s turn.