LeBron James sounded dejected when he addressed the media on opening night. Coming off of a 2021-22 season ruined by an ill-fitting roster, he had just watched his teammates waste a 31-point, 15-rebound effort against the defending champion Golden State Warriors by making only 25% of their 3-pointers and allowing 123 points. "We're not a team constructed of great shooting," James grumbled at the time. "It's not like we're sitting here with a lot of lasers on our team."
It was a flaw as predictable as it was infuriating. For most of the prior decade, the Lakers, Cavaliers and Heat had proven that the formula of LeBron plus defense plus shooting tends to equal championship contention. The Lakers entered the 2022-23 campaign with a roster that made no sense, and it showed in the first few weeks of the season. The Lakers started the season 2-10. They're now eight wins away from the championship, and in the process vanquished the opponent that kicked off their season with a loss.
James was far more positive this time around, but he refused to buy into the idea that the Lakers are playing with house money. "We're trying to win every hand," he said.
He might not have been ready to savor the moment, but his coach was. "We already know that monster in the Rocky Mountains is waiting on us, but can we just enjoy this one first?" Darvin Ham joked.
He certainly deserves a bit of a celebration. With each passing victory the Lakers seem to make more NBA history. With their win on Friday they became the first team in North American professional sports history to finish in last place in their division and still be among the final four teams remaining in the playoffs, according to OPTAStats. They were the first team in 18 years to start a season 2-10 and still finish above .500 for the season, and they are just the second team in NBA history to reach the conference finals after starting 2-10, following the 1977-78 Seattle Supersonics.
It was unimaginable during those dark days of October and November that the Lakers would be here. Their current group didn't even materialize until February, but it did so quickly. The Lakers are now 27-13 since dealing Russell Westbrook. D'Angelo Russell, one of the February acquisitions, argued that general manager Rob Pelinka was snubbed for executive of the year.
He might have a point. Russell himself scored 19 points in Friday's clincher. Jarred Vanderbilt was instrumental in guarding both Ja Morant and Stephen Curry across the first two rounds, and Rui Hachimura's hot shooting juiced an offense that otherwise struggled in the half court. It felt fitting that after the Lakers lost on opening night shooting 25% from 3-point range, they doubled their hit rate as they knocked the Warriors out on Friday to 50%. That same Warriors team that scored 123 against them in January was held to just 101 in Game 6. The James, defense and shooting formula is starting to come together.
There's no telling how far it will take the Lakers. They've opened as underdogs against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, and even if they advance, they will again be underdogs in the NBA Finals should the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers advance. Any of those three opponents are more threatening than the two teams they just defeated. The Lakers may want to win every hand, but there's no guarantee that the league deals them the right cards in the next two rounds.
But just reaching this point is an enormous achievement in itself. In a postseason in which thein the NBA has come under scrutiny, the Lakers deserve to take pride in one of the more remarkable turnarounds in the history of sports whether it ends in a championship or not. They turned one of the greatest embarrassments in franchise history into a real postseason run. James knocked off his tormentor for the first time in seven years on Friday, and even if he wants more out of this push, it'd be hard to compare the team that played Golden State tonight to the one that lost to them in October and call this season anything other than an unmitigated success.