Healthy and happy: LeBron James, Anthony Davis lead Lakers back to conference finals

May 13, 2023, 12:29 AM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — After every twist and turn in the soap opera saga of LeBron James’ four seasons alongside Anthony Davis with the Los Angeles Lakers, one truth remains perfectly clear.

This is a championship-caliber partnership when James and Davis are both healthy.

One or both superstars have been injured for long stretches of the three seasons since their 2020 bubble championship, and the Lakers’ road back to contention has been incredibly rocky because of it. The entire roster around them has been completely changed since that ring, but James and Davis are still here, still fighting.

Now they’re both healthy at the same time again, and the rest of the NBA has been reminded what happens when this dynamic duo can fly at full strength.

James and Davis were at their best while the Lakers eliminated the defending champion Golden State Warriors in six games, capping a masterful effort with a 122-101 victory Friday night.

When asked why the seventh-seeded Lakers find themselves four games from the NBA Finals just three months after they were six games below .500 and in 13th place in the Western Conference, James praised the front office for overhauling the roster around the trade deadline with the arrivals of D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura and Jarred Vanderbilt.

But James quickly added a second reason: “Also, staying healthy. We weren’t as healthy as we would like to be, but we still played good basketball after the break to put us in the position.”

LeBron and AD have won six of their seven playoff series together, losing only when Davis was hurt in the first round against Phoenix in 2021. The Lakers are 95-49 when James and Davis are playing together, and this postseason has been an archetypal example of what they can do.

They’re coming off a tremendously disappointing 2021-22 season in which they missed the playoffs while going 33-49, leading to Frank Vogel’s firing and Darvin Ham’s arrival. Davis’ injury problems limited him to 40 games, while James played in only 56.

But these Lakers are almost nothing like those Lakers: Other than James and Davis, only Austin Reaves and backup big man Wenyen Gabriel remain from last year’s roster.

“When you have guys like Bron and AD who have won championships, you always feel like you have a chance, especially with the roster that we have, the talent that we have,” said Reaves, the undrafted free agent who seized a starting role down the stretch.

James had 30 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in Game 6, repeatedly making stunning plays that answered anybody who thinks the top scorer in NBA history has lost anything at 38.

Davis was no less impressive with 17 points, 20 rebounds and the looming, athletic defensive presence that changes every opponent’s game plan.

Both stars are in remarkably good health as they head into the conference finals against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. Davis came back solidly at home Friday night after missing the end of Game 5 at Golden State following a blow to the head, and he’ll be ready to take on Nikola Jokic.

The Lakers had to fight just to get into the postseason, only getting into a play-in spot for good with 2 1/2 weeks left in the regular season. But Los Angeles is 27-12 since the trade deadline, with no back-to-back losses since March 17.

Ham never hesitates to credit his superstars for the Lakers’ success, even while he does impressive work in molding the team around them.

“One of the things I wanted to reestablish here was our competitiveness, and then work toward building a team, a roster of players that were together and that weren’t afraid to acknowledge what we’re doing wrong and how we can fix it,” Ham said. “It started with themselves, how can we all be better individually, and then come together as a group, and I think just throughout the season, the work ethic of LeBron, the persistence of AD, both of those guys.”

The Lakers’ season has gone from a probable disaster to an undeniable success in the past two months, but nobody appears to be satisfied. After handling every challenge thrown at them in recent weeks, the Lakers are headed into their showdown with top-seeded Denver carrying much more confidence than almost any seventh seed could possess — no surprise, since no seventh seed has reached the West finals since the 1986-87 Seattle SuperSonics.

“From Day One, we’ve always said we need those three elements to be able to do anything, to have any type of success within an NBA season, and that’s the competitiveness, togetherness and accountability,” Ham said. “Moreover from that, our work and our preparation will carry us as far as that takes us, and we stayed true to form with that.

“Everyone in the building, through those tough times at the beginning of the season, stayed positive, stayed encouraging.”


AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in San Francisco contributed.


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Healthy and happy: LeBron James, Anthony Davis lead Lakers back to conference finals