In early November, after the Lakers had lost seven of their first nine games, I gave up.
“The Lakers stink,” I wrote.
In early April, they looked tired and distracted and I threw in the towel.
“The Lakers are not a championship team,” I wrote.
On a raucous May Friday night at Crypto.com Arena, I’m absorbing the deafening cheers, admiring the unabashed domination, and choking on my words.
These Lakers most assuredly do not stink.
The Lakers are absolutely a championship team.
In a statement as breathtaking as an Austin Reaves half-court swish, the Lakers ended the reign of the defending NBA champs while grinding to within eight wins of their own unlikeliest of titles, and if you don’t believe in them now, you never will.
They blasted to a 122-101 victory over the Golden State Warriors to win the Western Conference semifinals series four games to two while illustrating a truth that seemed surreal even as streamers were falling and Randy Newman was singing.
The Lakers can do this. They can really do this.
“It’s unbelievable, man” said coach Darvin Ham. “It’s been a helluva ride that I hope never ends.”
Seriously, it might not end until it reaches a ring.
The Lakers have the experience and depth to defeat the top-seeded but untested Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals beginning Tuesday.
They have the defense and toughness to defeat any of the three potential opponents in the NBA Finals.
They have a championship roster, championship schemes, championship connectivity and, now, championship belief.
“The roster that we have, the talent that we have … our whole thing before the playoffs was, get in,” said Reaves, whose halftime buzzer-beating blast from midcourt Friday typified the Laker dramatics. “If we get in, we really think in a seven-game series that we would be tough to beat.”
Agreed. It’s real, it’s happening, it’s a remix of the two title seasons of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol more than a decade ago, a remade roster and a focused ruthlessness and all kinds of Lakers magic.
This, from a team that started 2-10. From a team that was 34-37 and out of the postseason with 11 games remaining. From a team that was pushed to overtime by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the stinking play-in game.
“I didn’t expect this, I didn’t think this … I’d be lying to tell you I did,” said D’Angelo Russell.
The Warriors could not have expected it either. Their flashy shooters were blanketed Friday by a cohesive Lakers defensive scheme that ultimately bled the Splash Brothers dry, holding Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to 14-for-47 shooting in the clincher while countering with some cannonballs of their own.
How is this for a series-ending stat? The Lakers clinched on a night they made the same number of three pointers — 13 — as the greatest shooting team in history.
How is this for a series-ended streak? The Lakers become the first team to deny the Warriors at least one win on the road in a playoff series in 10 years covering 28 games.
So don’t fret that the Nuggets have home-court advantage in the conference finals. The Lakers have just beaten both Memphis and Golden State without home-court advantage and, oh yeah, nobody can seem to beat them at Crypto, where they have won their last nine games.
Since the roster was remodeled at the trade deadline — Russell Westbrook shipped out, Russell and Rui Hachimura brought in — the Lakers have been oblivious to all the outside noise and amazingly focused on each other.
“Once we got out there, you could just tell guys liked each other, guys wanted to play for each other, it was contagious,” said Russell.
The result is a sense of resolve that was evident in both of their last two close-out games at home. They beat Memphis by 40 and the Warriors by 21.
This latest effort was a combination of the usual broad and amazing efforts. LeBron James scores 30 in a playoff game for the first time in three years. Anthony Davis climbs out of a wheelchair to grab 20 rebounds. Reaves delights his visiting family from a farm in Arkansas with 23 points. Lonnie Walker IV makes his usual phone-booth-exiting appearance with 13.
“I felt like if we ever had an opportunity to upgrade our roster and put some more balance around myself and A.D., I felt like we could make a run,” said James. “I felt like we could make a push throughout the rest of the regular season and then going into the postseason. And Rob [Pelinka] and the front office, they did that. They did that. And then it was up to me and A.D. to come through on the moves that they made.”
The clincher began with a stunning Lakers avalanche.
James layup. James layup. Russell jumper. Davis layup.
Warriors miss. Warriors miss. Warriors miss.
The Warriors missed 15 of their first 19 shots, the Lakers made nine of their first dozen shots, and with 4:40 left in the first quarter, the Lakers led 27-10 and it already felt over.
In the final moments before halftime, even though the Warriors had closed the gap, the Lakers provided a flourishing, finishing touch that really made it feel over.
On the Warriors’ last possession of the half, Davis blocked a shot by Donte DiVincenzo. On the Lakers ensuing possession, Reaves swished a half-court Hail Mary heave at the buzzer to give the Lakers a 56-46 halftime lead.
The noise was almost unimaginable. The cheering seemed to last throughout the break. This newfound Lakers mojo once again filled the building. That 10-point lead felt like 100.
“You don’t make many of those,” Reaves said. “But it did feel good when I shot it.”
It soon felt even better.
The beginning of the end came with 8:11 left in the third quarter when James scored on a layup to give the Lakers a 17-point lead that caused Ham to leap and scream while Russell slapped hands with rapper Jack Harlow and Lakers fans everywhere danced and hugged.
Moments later, after an alley-oop dunk by Davis was followed by an in-bounds steal by Davis, an enraged Green was assessed a technical foul and the Warriors were cooked.
“We were locked in for as close to 48 minutes as possible tonight,” said James.
Early in the fourth quarter, Jack Nicholson led cheers on the giant video board and that was that.
Two series down, two to go, and Ham said it better than this words-choked columnist could ever write it.
It’s unbelievable, man.
This story originally appeared on LA Times