LOS ANGELES — The Lakers belong here.
They are entitled to no longer be considered a No. 7 seed. They might still be underdogs in the national consciousness, and their successes in the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs might be considered upsets, but those who would do so need to look beyond the 43-victory regular season and consider the twists and turns of this strange journey, and how they’ve helped transform this team.
When the Western Conference finals begin Tuesday night in Denver, this will be a fair fight. Yes, the Nuggets are the No. 1 seed, and they have Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, home-court advantage and a healthy belief that this is their year.
But how do you consider any LeBron James team that makes it to this point of the season an underdog? The Lakers themselves believe, and the journey has given them reason to. Vanquishing the young, energetic Memphis Grizzlies, and then dethroning the proud champion Golden State Warriors in the first two rounds of the playoffs has fed that belief.
“I think the seeding thing is just a number,” said Lakers guard Austin Reaves, one of the heroes of Friday night’s series-clinching 122-101 victory over the Warriors. “When you have guys like Bron, A.D. (Anthony Davis) that’s won championships, even Tristan (Thompson) that’s been through the fire with LeBron and all those championships (in Cleveland), you always feel like you have a chance.
“And especially with the roster that we have, the talent that we have. Like, you seen Game 4 when Lonnie (Walker IV) went out and put on a clinic, and three games before that he wasn’t playing. So when you have talent like that, our whole thing before the playoffs was (to) get in. Like if we get in, you know, we really think in a seven-game series that we would be tough to beat. And I think that that’s been proven these first two series.”
What’s the bigger achievement? The major roster renovation General Manager Rob Pelinka performed at midseason? Or the bond that the new guys and the holdovers have developed in just three months?
“Rob Pelinka can tell you right up, I didn’t expect this,” D’Angelo Russell said. “I didn’t think this. So I’d be wrong, I’d be lying to tell you I did. But once we got out there, you could just tell guys liked each other. Guys wanted to play for each other. And it was just contagious. Everybody wanted to win. Everybody wanted to just get the job done every night. And you looked up, we had a chance and we ran with that.
“He got snubbed for that GM award that he was supposed to get,” Russell added.
Sacramento’s Monte McNair was named the NBA’s Executive of the Year last week, not surprisingly given the emergence of the Kings. But the Lakers’ dramatic improvement over the last two months of the regular season should have had enough impact for him to finish higher than 11th in the voting of league executives. Pelinka got one third-place vote and that was it.
But it’s like the point Coach Darvin Ham made the other night when other awards snubs were mentioned. Would you rather have a regular season award, or would you rather have a legitimate shot at a ring?
“Bunch of guys that were selfless,” Russell said of the trades that brought Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and Mo Bamba as well as himself. “Nobody expected or wanted anything. We worked for it all. And we had a touch, just a tad bit of chemistry in there, too. … When you have the right chemistry with guys it makes it that easy to go out every night and just play for each other.”
These players are prepared for this environment. Being a Laker and a member of LeBron’s team, and the attention and environment that comes with that helps. The intense focus needed to dig out of the hole the Lakers themselves created, or at least those who were on the roster earlier in the season … that helps, too.
“The month previous (to the playoffs), that whole buildup was basically playoff basketball for us,” Reaves said. “I can’t speak for the other teams, but we were in must-win situations for a long time. And to kind of be locked in like that before this – I mean, this is different just because you play the same team at most seven times. But to have that attention to detail, the focus that we had to have for the last month of the regular season, I think can be a big benefit for us because like I said, we were so locked in for so long.”
It does start with the leader. Whether or not LeBron was pacing himself at points during the Warriors series, he laid it all out there in Game 6: 30 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, two steals, one blocked shot and a couple of no-look passes that brought back memories of Magic Johnson orchestrating a previous generation’s fast break.
“They (the other players) expect nothing but greatness from him,” Ham said. “… It’s about the work he’s put in and where he’s placed himself, not just in his league today, but amongst the greats.”
LeBron’s been here often enough before that the expectations are baked in. So when asked if there was a possibility the Lakers were playing with house money at this point, he shot that down.
“Nah,” he said. “We’re trying to win every hand.”
This is no underdog. This is a team that’s going for the franchise’s 18th NBA championship.
It belongs here. And it very well could stay to the end.
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