LOS ANGELES — Lakers coach Darvin Ham arrived early to Crypto.com Arena Friday afternoon. He’d had less than 48 hours to process the situation his team found itself in after a demoralizing Game 5 loss in Memphis on Wednesday night.
His team had looked exhausted and disjointed in that game. The schedule ahead was brutal, with games scheduled every other day and cross-country flights between each of them. The Grizzlies’ young legs and ability to push the pace were increasingly becoming a factor against a team led by 38-year-old LeBron James.
Ham walked into the arena a little after 3 p.m. (for a game that didn’t start until nearly five hours later) and saw James had beat him there.
“He was just going through his pregame routine, like he always does,” Ham told ESPN. “He was ready.”
They all were.
The Lakers turned in their most dominant performance of the season in a 125-85 win to oust the second-seeded Grizzlies from the first round of the 2023 playoffs. James had 22 points, six assists and five rebounds. Anthony Davis had 16 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks while D’Angelo Russell had his most effective game as a Laker with 31 points on 12-for-17 shooting.
“We played on our toes, not on our heels,” Ham said afterwards. “Talking to [Davis] and Bron after Game 5, you could see that the switch had come on already.
“We weren’t ourselves for that game. We really looked a little gassed. But we all talked through text and it was one of those things where you knew, you felt the vibe as soon as we got to the arena.”
The L.A. home crowd seemed to sense it, too. Even the celebrities sitting courtside arrived early. Jack Nicholson made his first appearance at a Lakers game since October 2021, an homage that did not go unnoticed by James, who made a point of walking over to the legendary actor during pregame warmups.
He didn’t get to do that when the Lakers won the 2020 championship from inside the Orlando bubble. Or in 2021 when the Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs with a limited number of fans, amid the continuing pandemic. Last season L.A. missed the playoffs entirely.
But this season has provided James with the opportunity to connect with the fans he envisioned back when he chose to sign with the Lakers as a free agent in 2018, first by becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer in February, and now with virtuoso performances at home during what will be an extended playoff run.
“To be able to put on a Laker uniform and play for such a historical franchise, it’s always an honor,” James said. “The connection, I think you gotta ask the Laker fans. I feel welcome. I’m happy to go out there and perform and showcase what I’m still able to do, 20 years in the game. Hopefully I’ll just add to more memories that they’ve had for so long with so many great players and so many great teams. Hopefully I can be a part of some of those memories.”
James said he spent the hours in between Games 5 and 6 entirely focused on rest. He slept as much as he could, stayed off his feet, got treatment on his body and pre-loaded on carbohydrates and protein.
“I felt pretty good when I woke up this morning,” James said. “I felt excellent, actually.”
Normally he’d spend the hours before a game watching film of his opponent. Friday, he watched his son’s AAU basketball game until 45 minutes before tipoff.
After every game these days James gets asked how he keeps both his body and his mind at a high level at his age.
The resounding theme in every answer is that James still has the desire to train year-round and an attention to detail that both inspires his teammates or intimidates them enough not to disappoint him.
Second-year guard Austin Reaves noted after he missed a defensive rotation in the third quarter, he turned and saw James scowling.
“I think we were up 30 at the time,” Reaves said with a smile.
There’s always an urgency around James’ teams, of course. He expects to contend for championships and he expects his organization to surround him with a cast that can help him do so. That’s actually happened in 10 of James’ previous 19 seasons.
But only one of those trips to the Finals’ has come during his time in Los Angeles (2020). Since then, it has felt like James was drifting further and further away from contention because of injury, age or the clunky fit with Russell Westbrook.
After starting the season 2-10, the Lakers seemed as far away from contention as ever. But they’ve turned it all the way around now, becoming the second team in NBA history to start 2-10 or worse and recover to win a playoff series, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
The Lakers will play the winner of the Golden State-Sacramento series, which the Kings extended to a Game 7 on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) by beating the defending champion Warriors 118-99 on their home court Friday evening.
Memphis, of course, was not a typical No. 2 seed — a team featuring a hampered superstar in Ja Morant, missing its starting center in Steven Adams and backup big Brandon Clarke. The Lakers’ next opponent offers no such luxury. The Kings are healthy, young and play almost as fast. And the Warriors have a decade of championship experience to guide them.
James needs no such reminder, however.
He’s been to this stage too many times. The Grizzlies were the 20th franchise James has beat in a playoff series.
“We’ve got a young ball club with not much experience in the postseason,” James said of his postgame speech he gave the team. “So I try to give my knowledge about what I’ve been through, what they could expect.
“As hard as this series felt and as hard as this series was, it gets even harder when you move a level up.”