James sent the Lakers back to the NBA Finals for the first time in 10 years Saturday night, decimating the Denver Nuggets with a fourth quarter for the ages. This was, Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said, the most impressive late-game takeover he had ever witnessed in person. Yet James’s performance was all technique and orchestration, a little Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope mixed with shades of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant for good measure. The 35-year-old forward sent home the young and fearless Nuggets by dominating inside the arc, below the rim and, most importantly, between the temples.
“My shoulders are wide enough to carry a lot of load, but my mind is stronger,” James said after finishing with 38 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in the Lakers’ 117-107 victory.
The Lakers had not seen James at the peak of his powers during their two-plus months in the NBA bubble until Saturday, when he clinched his 10th career Finals appearance with tap-dance footwork, algorithmic decision-making and soft-touch jumpers. This was a classic case of an all-time great saving his best for last: James stepped forward to eliminate Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and the rest of the Nuggets, who had twice dug out of 3-1 series deficits in their run to the conference finals and had launched a second-half comeback Saturday.
“If we are in the fourth quarter and we have a chance to win, I do not want to play another game,” James said. “I want to be just as desperate as my opponent.”
James scored 16 points in the final period, backing down the smaller Murray to set up turnaround jumpers and pushing the ball in transition to create scoring opportunities. During the decisive stretch, he scored or assisted on 12 straight Lakers points and hit four consecutive jumpers. His final basket, a dagger three-pointer from the top of the key, was his only field goal from beyond the arc. Everything else came in the basket area or from the elbows and midrange hot spots favored by Jordan and Bryant.
“I know everybody wants to get caught up in the whole argument about the greatest of all time,” Nuggets Coach Michael Malone said. “That is an unwinnable debate. LeBron is one of the greatest to ever do it, and his résumé speaks for itself. When the game was hanging in the balance, who took over? The best player on the floor. That’s what you’ve come to expect from him.”
James’s ode to an earlier era was, at least in part, borne of necessity. His outside shooting has been spotty at times, he has looked winded during some endgame situations, and he hasn’t been nearly as physically dominant as he was during his most recent playoff run with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018. But James compensated for those age-related realities by outthinking his three postseason opponents while racking up a 12-3 record in this run to the Finals.
In the first round, James waited for the Portland Trail Blazers to run out of gas after their push into the playoffs, force-fed Anthony Davis against undermanned opponents and then scored 38 points in a Game 3 statement that effectively ended the series. In the second round, he seized on the Houston Rockets’ chemistry questions and undersized lineups with 36 points in another series-altering Game 3 win. In the conference finals, James watched Davis pepper the Nuggets with a Game 2 buzzer-beater before dealing the knockout blows himself.
Jokic, a supreme talent who established himself as the best center in basketball this summer, found himself in foul trouble again in Game 5 and couldn’t muster effective counters. Murray, the bubble’s breakout performer, was limited by a knee contusion and saw his magic run out. Both Nuggets stars appear to be perennial all-NBA candidates in the future, and both are more than 10 years younger than James. Both were outlasted and outsmarted by James, just as Damian Lillard and James Harden were before them.
The Lakers have regularly evoked Bryant, who died tragically in a January helicopter crash, and his mental focus and reputation for clutch play. Davis shouted “Kobe!” after his Game 2 buzzer-beater. As James walked to the Lakers’ locker room after Game 5, he said, “Job not done” — a sentiment Bryant memorably expressed during the 2009 NBA Finals. The last time the Lakers reached the Finals, in 2010, Bryant scored 37 points on 25 shots in 40 minutes in the closeout win in the Western Conference finals. James had 38 points on 25 shots in 40 minutes Saturday.
“Every time you put on purple and gold, you think about his legacy,” James said. “Our games are different, but [there are similarities] as far as our mind-set and our drive to want to be the best and our drive to not lose. That drive to always want to be victorious, it stops you from sleeping and you sacrifice a lot of things. You sacrifice your family at times because you’re so driven to be so great that other things fall by the wayside. I’m one of the few that can understand the mind-set that he played with.”
Still, James has long been his own man. His late scoring flourish complemented a vintage passing display. Early, he tossed well-timed looks to a cutting Alex Caruso. Later, he found Davis with a full-court throw-ahead. To kick-start the fourth-quarter run, he lined up Danny Green for a three-pointer. The Nuggets looked like homeowners with a leaky roof and an overflowing sink, unable to stop James’s shot-making or his playmaking.
The most common knock on these Lakers, who will face either the Miami Heat or the Boston Celtics in the Finals, is that they are mercenaries. Recent Western Conference powers such as the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs blossomed organically around franchise players who were selected in the draft and grew up in front of their fan bases. James, by contrast, moved to Los Angeles two years ago as a free agent, while Davis, Green, Dwight Howard and other key rotation players arrived last summer. Los Angeles is a team largely composed of veterans who paid their dues elsewhere.
As James seeks his fourth title with three different franchises, his Game 5 performance was a reminder that his personal story has transcended markets and cities in ways Jordan’s and Bryant’s did not. Critics might see that as a weakness; James does not.
Before the Lakers received their Western Conference championship trophy, James took a seat on the court and again found himself lost in thought as confetti rained down around him. He said later that his mind had gone many places: to teammates who were making their first Finals appearances, to the success of his new partnership with Davis and to the challenges that still await. Then he embarked on a brief trip down memory lane.
“I just started thinking about my journey,” James said. “As Frank Sinatra would say, I did it my way.”