The Golden State Warriors would not repeat. Once again, LeBron James was involved.
Led by 30 points from James, the Los Angeles Lakers eliminated the Warriors with a 122-101 victory in Game 6 on Friday. They will face the Denver Nuggets, who swept the Phoenix Suns, in the Western Conference Finals on Thursday.
It is the first time the Warriors have been eliminated by a Western Conference team since the hiring of head coach Steve Kerr in 2014. Since then they have either reached the NBA Finals — winning four and losing twice, once to James and the Cleveland Cavaliers and once to the Toronto Raptors — or missing the playoffs altogether in 2020 and 2021.
That 2021 campaign also ended in the play-in tournament, where they lost the first game to the Lakers.
James was as efficient as ever, shooting 10-of-14 with nine rebounds, nine assists and two steals in addition to his scoring, while Anthony Davis had 17 points, 20 rebounds, two steals and two blocks on defense and on the board. Dominate. This season, the Lakers are the second team to advance from the play-in tournament to the Conference Finals, joining the Miami Heat.
How do you prevent the Warriors from running an offense for an entire series? It turns out that Davis has to guard the interior while he goes cold from 3-point range. The Warriors entered the game shooting 31.7% from deep in their last three games and once again had a tough night on the perimeter, shooting 13-of-48 collectively.
The struggle came from each player, with the Warriors usually relying on teams to hit from long range. Stephen Curry didn't look like Stephen Curry, shooting an incompetent 11-of-28 for 32 points. Klay Thompson certainly didn't look like the Klay Thompson of old, shooting 3-of-19 and scoring eight points.
And Jordan Poole, well, he disappeared again. Last year's playoff breakout star finished a miserable series with seven points on 3-of-10 shooting.
The Lakers never trailed on Friday, jumping out to a two-point lead midway through the first quarter. The Warriors kept the lead within single digits for most of the second, but Austin Reeves' halfcourt heave cut the Lakers' lead to 10 at the buzzer. Reeves finished the game with 20 points, six assists and five rebounds.
This was as close as the Warriors would get for the rest of the game.
Warriors never regained champion form this season
The series loss ends a turbulent season for the Warriors, which began with a bizarre feud between Poole and Draymond Green.
For years, the Warriors' plan was for a new wave of young players — led by Poole, James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and more — to keep the team among the NBA's elite, but they needed Curry and co. Just to make the playoffs. Their bench was notoriously weak throughout the season, and their aging core couldn't cover the holes they used to have.
Golden State finished the regular season 44–38, sixth in the West, and needed seven games to avoid the Sacramento Kings in the first round. He was not so lucky when he carried on the same form in the next round.
How do the Lakers match up against the Nuggets?
While defeating the Warriors has often been the NBA's version of slaying the dragon, the Lakers' next opponent will likely represent a stiffer challenge.
The Nuggets, the top seed in the West, have been spectacular throughout the season, starting with MVP runner-up Nikola Jokic. Instead of holding down the paint with Green and Kevon Looney, Davis will be tasked with handling the best passing big man ever, playing with the best supporting cast of his career.
The bright side is that the Lakers went 2-2 against the Nuggets this season, and one of those losses came with James and Davis both sidelined with injuries. The Nuggets are clearly elite, but the Lakers' pairing of stars and post-trade deadline reinforcements give them as high a ceiling as anyone at this point.
Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals is scheduled for Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET in Denver (ESPN).