Mark your calendars, people. Make travel plans the first week in June. Pack your sunscreen, get your Disneyland tickets and save a few extra bucks for the outrageous California gas prices.
The Lakers are going to the NBA Finals.
This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to Wednesday night’s win against Chicago, which pulled L.A. back to .500 for just the second time this season. Anthony Davis scored 38 points in that one. LeBron James, back in the starting lineup, chipped in 25. The Lakers’ three-point defense—second best in the league, per NBA.com—held the Bulls to 27.3%
Full disclosure, I intended to write this column weeks ago, sometime between the Lakers’ third straight win over Golden State and a one-sided road whooping of New Orleans. An ugly loss against Houston (thanks, AD) and a buzzer-beater defeat to Dallas tempered my enthusiasm, but didn’t kill it.
Believe me: This team in this conference can get it done.
Don’t think so? Watch Davis. Davis’s injury history has made him a piñata for critics—Charles Barkley has referred to Davis as “Street Clothes”—but when he’s out there, he’s a force. “It all starts with [AD],” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. Davis is averaging 26 points this month. He’s shooting 58% from the floor. When he has shot the three—Davis is attempting 1.4 per game, the fewest since his third season—he is connecting on a respectable 35.7% in March.
Davis still has the occasional clunker (eight shots in 36 minutes against Chicago on Sunday) and should have pushed back on the Lakers’ decision to rest him against the Rockets. But when Davis is healthy (and he is) and on (ditto), James said he is “probably one of the most dynamic players we have in our league.”
Watch Austin Reaves—“Hillbilly Kobe,” as an Oklahoma assistant lightheartedly branded him in college—who, if he retired tomorrow, would end his two-year NBA career as the Lakers’ all-time leader in offensive rating (seriously). He is averaging 18 points per game since the All-Star break. “I don’t know if there is anything [he] can’t do on the offensive end,” D’Angelo Russell said. He buried a dagger jumper late in the fourth quarter of a 35-point effort against Orlando and hit Patrick Beverley with the “too small” after shooting over him for two of his 19 against the Bulls. He’s averaging 16 points as a starter, a position he ascended to a few games ago and one Ham says he will hold for a while.
Watch Russell, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley, the players L.A. acquired before the trade deadline. Hachimura has been a solid rotation player. Russell is shooting nearly 40% from three-point range. Vanderbilt has brought a Dennis Rodman–like energy (and rebounding skills) to the starting lineup. Beasley’s three-point shot has been erratic, but he is a proven deep threat.
“You can’t, as a defense, key in on one guy anymore,” James said. “We have multiple ballhandlers. No one needs to feel like they have the stress of handling the ball on every possession. We have shotmakers, and we have a lot of length. It gives us a lot to do defensively as well.”
Then, there is James. The Lakers will go only as far as his body lets him. James’s foot injury was scary. Two doctors recommended surgery. Another—“the LeBron James of feet,” James said—advised against it. James looked uncomfortable in his return Sunday. On Wednesday, he looked better. He moved more fluidly. He attacked more aggressively. He was 11-of-19 from the floor while collecting seven rebounds and four assists. “I’m still getting a little of my quick twitch, my bounce back,” James said. “I think by the end of the road trip I’ll be pretty good.”
And if he is, who is stopping the Lakers? Denver? The Nuggets are 18th in defensive rating since the All-Star break. Memphis? Good team, great defense, limited experience, and that Brandon Clarke injury will cost them. Sacramento? Just happy to be there. Golden State? Maybe. The Clippers? Check back when Paul George is. Phoenix looks formidable—if the Suns can stay healthy.
I know—the Lakers still have to make the playoffs. Wednesday’s win bumped L.A. up to the No. 8 seed. But it is a game back of Minnesota—which the Lakers will see Friday—for the seventh spot and one in the loss column behind the Warriors for sixth. They have four games left on this road trip, but two of them (Houston, Utah) look winnable and another is a de facto home game against the Clippers.
Look, I’m not a Lakers truther. I picked them to miss the playoffs in 2019–20, Davis’s first season in Los Angeles (whoops), and tabbed them to make the Finals in ’21–22, Russell Westbrook’s first season (yikes). I pounded them for scapegoating coach Frank Vogel (that still doesn’t sit well) and criticized them for running a multibillion-dollar franchise like a mom-and-pop shop.
Still. it’s impossible to look at this team in this conference in these playoffs and not like its chances. James, even at 38, is still James. Davis has regained some All-NBA swagger. And the midseason deals have formed a functional team around them. The Lakers have the NBA’s fourth-best defensive rating since the All-Star break. In the 46 minutes they have played together, James, Davis and Russell have an offensive rating of 130.2, per NBA.com.
“You got guys like that around; it’s super easy,” Russell said.
The playoffs won’t be. What the conference lacks in Goliaths, it makes up for with a bunch of Davids. Any of the top 8 could emerge. And while the Lakers are a few wins away from avoiding the play-in game, they are a few losses from sliding back into the lottery.
Whatever. Eight of James’s past nine postseason appearances have ended in the Finals. He has Davis and the right supporting cast around him. The Lakers will be one of two teams playing in June. So book your plane tickets. Take your vacation days. Get your bets in (L.A. at +1200, per SI Sportsbook, is a nice play). The Lakers are going back to the Finals.
And we’ll see who they play when they get there.