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LeBron James and Lakers eliminate Grizzlies in Game 6 rout

The golden yellow sticks flashed throughout the arena, LeBron James standing at the opposite end of the court at the free-throw line taking in the game and the moment around him.

To his right, Kyrie Irving sat courtside. Ahead of him on the left in his seat, Jack Nicholson.

This had to have been the kind of night James envisioned when he picked the Lakers in 2018, the crowd full of stars, the stakes incredibly high and the spotlight on him and his team.

Pregame, James greeted them both.

Friday, it was all his — the attention, the opportunity, the moment, the team around him.

This was what James wanted. And it was what the Lakers all earned.

In front of a crowd that rewarded every moment with passionate response, the Lakers rolled their way into the second round, beating the second-seeded Grizzlies 125-85 in Game 6.

They’re the first No. 7 seed to advance in the playoffs since 2010. The Lakers will play whoever wins Game 7 on Sunday in Sacramento between the Kings and Golden State Warriors.

D’Angelo Russell, the player the Lakers once drafted to be their future, splashed jumpers that scraped the ceiling. Anthony Davis wrapped his arms around the defensive paint in a smothering bearhug when he wasn’t using them to block shots. And James, he responded. After calling himself “s—” in Game 5 — a four-letter description for a five-make, five-turnover night — James attacked the paint and made it clear that he wouldn’t be forced into life beyond the three-point arc.

James made nine of 13 shots for 22 points to go with five rebounds and six assists in 31 minutes, looking more like the James of old than someone who is actually “old” as Dillon Brooks called him after Game 2.

The Lakers were 32 points better than Memphis on Friday night when James was on the court.

But unlike so many other James playoff runs, the Lakers could afford for him to move from center stage. In Game 1, Austin Reaves carried the Lakers home, telling everyone that “I’m him” as they opened the series with a win. In Game 3, the defensive energy from the Lakers bull-rushed the Grizzlies. And Friday in Game 6, Russell, not James, did the most damage on offense.

The Lakers point guard scored 31, a career postseason high coming against the same Memphis team that held him to 13.8 points per game in the playoffs a year ago.

Lakers forward Anthony Davis celebrates during the second quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“To finally make some was a good feeling, but the win was better, to be honest,” Russell said.

James grabbed his moments, too.

His layup high off the backboard in Game 4 to force overtime was one of the series’ defining moments, and his all-around excellence in Game 6 ensured that this team would be headed to the second round.

Davis, like he did all series, meant everything for the Lakers on the interior. He scored 16 on nine shots, grabbing 14 rebounds and blocking five shots. In the series, Davis swatted 26 shots.

These moments, they’ve been too spread out for the NBA’s all-time scoring leader in his time in Los Angeles. Injuries robbed his team a chance at the playoffs in Year 1. The championship with Davis in Year 2 got played on a soundstage in Florida. More injuries and pandemic-attendance rules meant their title defense would end in a half-full house with Davis on the sidelines.

And for most of the last two seasons, all of this seemed unlikely if not impossible for James, every day as an NBA player making it harder to guarantee that he’d be healthy enough for something special to come together.

After missing the playoffs entirely in 2022, James and the Lakers looked lost for most of this season, only making it to (and eventually past) .500 in the final weeks.

“We had an energy that was kind of contagious with our group,” Russell said of the rebuilt Lakers. “It trickled down and was kind of contagious.”

Everyone had a hand in this, from Jarred Vanderbilt’s defense on Ja Morant, to James and Davis dominating in the closeout to Dennis Schroder’s defensive havoc.

“We’re grateful,” coach Darvin Ham said, mentioning their 2-10 start this season. “…I just knew if we just stayed at it.”

The Lakers led by 11 after the first quarter and by as many as 20 in the second before slamming the door shut on Memphis’ season with a 41-25 advantage in the third quarter.

Morant made just three of 16 shots to score 10 points, the fewest points he’s ever scored in a playoff game.

Lakers star LeBron James grabs a rebound in front of Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant.

Lakers star LeBron James grabs a rebound in front of Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant in the first quarter Friday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies’ other All-Star this season, was an offensive non-factor for the fifth straight game after he scored 31 in the opener.

Memphis made only 30.2% of its shots, the Lakers putting on a defensive masterpiece in the final game of the series.

“Every possession, we played on our toes, not on our heels,” Ham said.

Even with the game in hand, the Lakers flew for loose balls, Davis crashing into seats near the Lakers bench to save a possession. Russell jumped off the bench and sprinted to help him back up, Davis putting his hands in the air while applause filled the arena.

It was one moment for the Lakers on a night full of them, the win ensuring they will have more time to keep creating them.

It was a message James shared with his team, that the Lakers only passed the first level on their journey.

“This thing is just getting started,” Ham said.

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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