LeBron James had the season on his hands, the series in his legs, the beginnings of a miracle within his reach.
Yet, in the end, he just couldn’t get high enough.
In a play that typified the Lakers uphill battle of a season, James’ potential score-tying jumper was blocked by Denver’s Aaron Gordon in the final seconds Monday to cement the Nuggets’ 113-111 victory and a four-game sweep of the Western Conference Finals.
A sweep, but it wasn’t ugly, the Lakers battling the Nuggets into the fourth quarter in every game.
“The thing that gives me joy is the fact that we competed every night,” said Lakers coach Darvin Ham. “I just told the guys to take stock of what this meant.”
A sweep, but it wasn’t embarrassing, the Lakers consistently and relentlessly pushing against a clearly superior team.
“I thought we fought as hard as we could fight,” said Ham.
A sweep, but there should be no shame, the Lakers having risen from a 2-10 start into the third week of May, from 13th place to the NBA’s final four, from jokes to championship hopes.
“A hell of a year, a hell of an experience and hell of a turnaround,” said Ham.
The Lakers were the first team to be eight games under .500 and still make the conference finals. The Lakers played without home-court advantage yet defeated the conference’s second-seeded team in Memphis and the defending NBA champions in Golden State.
More impressive than all that, the Lakers were perhaps the first team in franchise history to turn boos of November into spring roars unmatched in the downtown arena’s history.
“Everybody pulling the rope in the same direction, it was a very, very special year,” said Ham.
During this fabulous run to the precipice of the NBA Finals, the town fell in love with the Lakers again. They embraced wayward son Anthony Davis. They fell over themselves cheering for new star Austin Reaves. They crazily applauded playoff hero Lonnie Walker IV.
And then there was LeBron James.
This is the postseason where James officially became a Laker.
He was the beating heart of every postseason victory and, seemingly, the only Laker who believed they could overcome the three-games-to-none deficit that could have smothered them Monday night.
When James showed up at the court to shoot at 1 p.m., NBA and ESPN officials were already there planning a Nuggets-victory trophy ceremony.
James obviously noticed. James certainly reacted.
“It was a little motivating factor for me tonight,” he acknowledged.
He came flying out at the start with a force and energy previously unseen in these playoffs and proceeded to maintain that level of desperation in a game in which he played all but four seconds.
“He came out with the mindset to keep this thing going,” said Ham.
James hit soaring three-pointers. He sank bruising layups. He ripped through the Nuggets time and again, and guarded each of their stars with an unshakeable passion, shoving, tugging, grinding.
“He came out on fire, he came out super aggressive, he kept us in it,” said Davis, who missed nine of his 15 shots and could learn from James’ passion.
It was clear, James was determined not to let the Lakers get swept, and in that effort he scored 40 points with 10 rebounds and nine assists.
It was arguably the best he’s played since becoming a Laker. It was a shining moment in a season where the locals finally began to appreciate him.
And that last shot that was blocked? Ham insisted James was fouled.
“He was trying to get downhill, man,” said Ham, later adding, “There’s contact on just about every play in the NBA now when you drive the ball, and what’s considered a violation and what’s not and what’s called, and what’s not, I’m oblivious.”
No matter, in the end, James didn’t have enough. In the end, the Lakers just weren’t enough.
Nikola Jokic, who scored 30, was better than Davis. Jamal Murray, who seemingly scored for an entire week, was more consistent than the tiring James.
As for the rest of the Nuggets, it was obvious this team has played together and won together for an entire season, and they just worked better together.
Except for Reaves and Rui Hachimura, the Lakers couldn’t match a Nuggets supporting cast that produced big moments from everyone from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to Michael Porter Jr. to Gordon to Bruce Brown.
The Nuggets were deeper. The Nuggets were sharper. The Nuggets were better.
This doesn’t mean the Lakers’ season was a failure. The season wasn’t a success — for all Lakers teams, the only success is a championship — but it wasn’t a failure either.
The season was confirmation for new coach Ham.
He was a rookie boss who handled their terrible start like a pro, never quitting on his underachieving players, never criticizing even the most blatant of failures, and never publicly arguing with Russell Westbrook.
When Ham was hired last summer, there was some question as to whether the NBA journeyman would have credibility in a locker room run by James.
He did. He earned it. He now owns it.
With his unwavering faith and hard-work philosophies culled from a life on NBA benches, he won over the Lakers biggest stars and managed a team that played hard every night.
“I think it was special in the fact that having a first-year coach, first-year coaching staff, to be able to take them to the Western Conference finals, I think that’s dope for Coach Ham and his coaching staff going forward,” said James. “That’s pretty amazing.”
The season was also redemption for general manager Rob Pelinka.
After enduring four months of biting criticism for trading for Westbrook, Pelinka transformed the narrative by transforming the Lakers.
He dumped Westbrook. He acquired Hachimura and D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt, all of whom made good contributions even though Russell collapsed in the final series.
Pelinka achieved the rare accomplishment of changing a team’s culture in midseason without trading or acquiring a star. He’s been ripped for much in his six years as the Lakers’ personnel boss, but in remodeling a 13th place team into the league’s final four, he deserves much credit.
“It was an exciting moment when we were able just to bring those guys into the locker room,” said James of the remodel. “You know, we were just a better team right away, and it results in getting to the Western Conference finals.”
The season was also a revelation for Reaves and Hachimura.
Both guys were strictly background players when the season began — Hachimura was an invisible part of the Washington Wizards — but both blossomed into viable Lakers by the end of the season.
Reaves was their third best player. Hachimura was their best energy player. This summer the Lakers should do their best to re-sign both, and not attempt to do much more.
Unless they can acquire multiple talents for Davis, they should not break up this team for the sake of adding a third superstar — no Kyrie Irving! Don’t mess with the chemistry that came alive in the final weeks.
This team finished just four wins from the Finals. With an entire season together, perhaps James’ last as a Laker, this same team could take that Finals step.
In the end, against arguably the best team in the NBA, the Lakers didn’t have enough.
But this is not the end. This, it would seem, is only the beginning.