Once down 3-1 in the series, the Nuggets completed an all-time comeback by defeating the Clippers in Game 7 of their semifinal matchup and will now face the Los Angeles Lakers for the Western Conference crown.
Any time the Los Angeles Lakers open the doors to their practice court, a few familiar incidents play out.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis engage in friendly trash talk. They compete in shooting contests. And then they start icing their bodies.
Not only do these moments capture how the Lakers’ star duo meshes well with their personalities. It also offers a window into how James and Davis try to set the tone for the rest of the team with how serious they take their work.
“These guys follow us on the court,” Davis said. “So it’s our jobs to make sure we’re the ones leading.”
Safe to say that James and Davis have led well.
The Lakers will play the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals beginning with Game 1 on Friday after dispatching the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers in five games. James and Davis landed on the All-NBA’s first team, while the other members of that team have since gone fishing (Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Houston’s James Harden and Dallas’ Luka Doncic). And, according to Elias Sports Bureau, James and Davis became the first pair of teammates to both averaged at least 25 points and 10 rebounds in a playoff series in 60 years.
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The Lakers have not just benefitted from James averaging 25.3 points and a league-leading 10.2 assists. Nor have they just benefitted from Davis’ post presence (26.1 points) and rim protection that landed him a spot on the All-NBA Defensive First team. The Lakers have also benefitted from James and Davis ensuring the team has a workman-like attitude, a key factor that suggests the Lakers will not overlook Denver as the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers did when they squandered 3-1 series leads.
“Anthony and LeBron have taken that lead from us and have really set that tone in practices, film sessions and everything we’re doing away from the court to make sure we’re at our best come game time,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “If your coaching staff is raising the bar of accountability, and your player leadership is strong, you’re going to have a sense of urgency every time you take the court.”
James has often adopted what his mother, Gloria, stressed to him during his childhood in Akron, Ohio. Gloria, a single mother, often told her only child, “Don’t talk about it; be about it.”
James admitted, though, that his mindset this season partly stemmed from a few variables. In his first season with the Lakers, James missed 27 games because of a groin injury. In related news, James missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006 after appearing in the NBA Finals for nine consecutive seasons.
“I didn’t like the way that ended,” James said. “My mindset coming into the season was already pretty much locked in just from the summertime.”
Then, James used that extended time both to heal his body and sharpen his game. Before shooting scenes for Space Jam 2, James reported waking up at 4 a.m. for daily workouts. Not only did James feel motivated to rectify the Lakers’ season, he felt invigorated when the team acquired Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans. Though James had initially hoped the Lakers would hire Tyron Lue as coach after the two worked together in Cleveland, James respected Vogel’s hire after coaching an Indiana Pacers team that challenged his Miami Heat squad in three playoff appearances (2012-14).
Yet, it would be a stretch to say Vogel, Davis or anyone else has pushed James to intensify his work ethic.
“I want to say no because I’ve never needed anyone to push me. I’m an only child, so I had to push myself,” James said. “But in the sense of being older than AD, I think it’s showing him how much I put into my craft and that trickles down to him. I think I would be cheating him if he became a part of this, and I was cheating the game in some way, shape or form. It’s an example I will set for any of my teammates, not just AD, but anybody I ever played. You can ask any of my teammates.”
If you ask James’ teammates, they will say the same thing.
“Having a guy like LeBron who has been in the situation many, many times, especially now, I kind of lean on him a lot, especially in these playoffs,” Davis said. “I haven’t been here before. I lean on him a lot to try to follow his lead also, while still trying to lead the rest of the guys. It’s been fun and challenging just being here and not having a typical playoffs. It’s been fun for us. We’re moving in the right direction.”
This has had a trickle-down effect. The Lakers hired Vogel partly because of his intense preparation, which has sparked James, Davis and others to respect him. Because of that, Vogel has gained more authority to coach the team as he sees fit. The Lakers upgraded their roster last summer by acquiring more shooters (Danny Green), defenders (Avery Bradley) and rim protectors (Dwight Howard). While James and Davis’ presence have helped relieve pressure on their supporting cast, they have bought into their roles more willingly. Case in point, JaVale McGee and Howard did not complain one bit when Vogel played them a combined 23 minutes in the last four games of the Western Conference semifinals in favor of a smaller lineup to match Houston’s.
“They’ve been the rocks and heart and souls of our team all year,” Kyle Kuzma said. “If we don’t do our jobs, they don’t have the success that they have.”
They have achieved plenty of success.
James just set a league record for most All-NBA First Team selections (13). He also surpassed Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan for the most All-NBA selections in league history (16).
“I’m kind of at a loss for words. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to take care of my body, push my body to the limits, that maybe at times when I was younger I didn’t think I could get to,” the 35-year-old James said. “I never put a ceiling on what I can do in this league. I think one of the things I pride myself on is being available to my teammates.”
Davis made the All-NBA First Team for the fourth time in his career and the first time since the 2017-18 season. It also marked the second time he made an All-Defensive First Team and fourth time overall earning All-Defensive honors after ranking third in the regular season in blocks (2.3) and becoming only one of two players to average at least 2.0 blocks and 1.5 steals.
“It’s been an honor for me. Then I can’t lose track and get excited about that and not remember what the ultimate goal is,” Davis said. “I think having a championship trumps everything.”
Therefore, James and Davis plan to keep working. The Lakers plan to follow their lead.
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