LeBron and the Lakers win play-in game

Image caption: Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, left, shoots as Golden State Warriors forward Juan Toscano-Anderson defends during the first half of an NBA basketball Western Conference Play-In game Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

LOS ANGELES –  A desperation LeBron James 3-point heave to give the Los Angeles Lakers a 103-100 win against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA’s newly formatted play-in tournament says one or two things about the defending champs.

Either it acknowledges that the Lakers know what it takes to win or that this year’s journey to the championship is not going to be the easy breezy formula the team came up with last season. It could be a combination of both.

Lakers guard Alex Caruso, who came of the bench to score 14 points, said the play-in game could be beneficial for the ballclub in the long run.

“Having a play-in game might be a blessing in disguise for us just because it’s an opportunity for us to…I’m tentative to say this but it wasn’t a win or go home game,” Caruso said. “We treated it like that. But at the end of the day, if we had lost we would have had another game to play to get in. Just being able to go through this experience where it’s basically a do-or-die game and having the new guys feel that mentality, playing every possession like it’s your last, being locked in, the ups and downs of the game, answering back to other team’s runs… stuff that takes championship DNA and championship mindsets to win.”

By beating the Warriors at STAPLES Center, the Lakers now get Chris Paul, Devin Booker and the No. 2 Phoenix Suns in the official first round of the playoffs. The Lakers and Suns Game 1 dance will take place Sunday in Arizona. That means James, after taking a nasty fall late in the game, thanks to a hard foul from Draymond Green, and the rest of the Lakers can get rested up for the Suns.

They are going to need it. The game time adjustments that usually come courtesy of a best-of-seven series were afforded to neither the Lakers nor the Warriors since both teams had to struggle just to make the play-in tournament in the first place. Yes, the Lakers are the defending champs, but last year’s team is last year’s team.

That squad no longer hang out in El Segundo anymore.

Last season, when the Lakers walked on the floor, dominance came rather easily. Yes, it’s only one game. But the Lakers are what they are at this point in the season. They are the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference. Last season, the Lakers were top dawg in the Western Conference and looking every bit the champion that they would eventually become.

With all of that said, what are we to believe about this Lakers’ squad?

Yes, they have the league’s greatest player in James. And they have an All-Star stud in Anthony Davis. But as Stephen Curry and the Warriors showed…so what? Curry dropped 37 points on the Lakers in a losing cause, connecting on 12 of 23 field goal attempts.

“The less he [Curry] shoots the less he hurts you,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said during a pre-game press conference.

During the regular season, the Lakers posted a 1-2 mark against the Warriors and held Curry to an average of 23 points per game. The NBA scoring champ during the season at 32 points a game, Curry single-handily kept the Warriors on the threshold of a potential upset with his timely and backbreaking 3-pointers.

“The guy is just flat-out unbelievable,” Vogel said after the game. “I think he’s playing as well or better than anyone has ever seen it. That’s what I feel. [Golden State Warriors head coach] Steve Keer said we’re going to throw the kitchen sink at him and we did and he still had thirty-seven. It’s just remarkable to see what he’s doing. We’re fortunate to get this W knowing that we did everything we could to slow him down.

And by halftime, Lakers fans were probably hitting their heads against the wall after Curry dropped a 3-point bomb to end the second quarter with Golden State holding a 55-42 advantage.

James and the Lakers showed no panic. That’s what a championship pedigree does. It allows a team or athlete to not get too high when the moments are good and not too low when everything is hitting rock bottom. Or it seems like it. And the Lakers looked every bit like they were getting their fannies kicked up and down the STAPLES Center court.

But getting hammered in the first half by the feisty Warriors, a team that played all night with nothing to lose, the Lakers came back in the third quarter to restore order. They did so by outscoring Golden State 35-24 in the third period and forced the Warriors into turning the ball eight of the 20 times they coughed up the ball.

The Lakers committed just two turnovers in that critical third quarter. This is where the Lakers turned the game around in their favor. After sleepwalking in the first two quarters, the Lakers woke up in time to deny Curry and the Warriors a momentous victory. This would not be the first time that James, who finished the game with a triple-double (22 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) has put a block on a Curry party.

It was James and his Cleveland Cavaliers who pumped the brakes on Curry and the Warriors to defeat Golden Stae in seven games for an NBA title in 2016. James got Curry again. This time while James and the Lakers are moving on to play the Suns, Curry and the Warriors are left having to play and beat Memphis Grizzlies in order to claim that last playoff spot.

“We’ll be ready,” Curry said. “Right now it sucks. We played pretty well tonight. Missed this type of environment. It was a lot of fun. High intensity, high competitive level.”

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