The Los Angeles Lakers, fueled by a triple-double from superstar LeBron James, beat the Denver Nuggets 117-107 on Saturday to reach the NBA Finals.
With the win in the league’s quarantine bubble in Orlando, the Lakers completed a 4-1 victory over the Nuggets in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals.
James scored 16 of his 38 points in the fourth quarter as the Lakers remained perfect in elimination games this post-season.
Denver, already the first team to twice come back from 1-3 series deficits in the same playoffs, couldn’t work the magic again.
James added 16 rebounds and 10 assists, and Anthony Davis scored 27 points for the Lakers, who are back in the championship series for the 32nd time – and the first time since they lifted the trophy for the 16th time in 2010.
Kobe Bryant was NBA Finals MVP that year, and it has been an emotional road to the finals this season for the Lakers after the death of Bryant in a helicopter crash in January.
“Every time you put on the purple and gold you think about his legacy, you think about him and what he meant to this franchise for 20-plus years,” James said of Bryant.
The Lakers will take on the winners of the Eastern Conference final series between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. The Heat lead that series 3-2 with game six coming up on Monday.
“We’re going to enjoy it tonight, but we understand we’ve got bigger fish to fry,” James said as the Western Conference title was celebrated on court. “We understand there’s a bigger goal.
Nikola Jokic and Jerami Grant scored 20 points apiece for the Nuggets and Jamal Murray added 19 points with eight assists despite being slowed by injury.
A tight first quarter that featured nine lead changes ended with the Lakers up 33-30, with reserve Alex Caruso pushing the Lakers’ lead in the closing seconds with a layup off an assist by James.
With 14 points from James in the second quarter the Lakers began to separate themselves, leading by as many as 11 points and taking a 61-51 lead into halftime.
It looked like the Lakers might run away with it when they built a 16-point lead early in the third quarter.
But Denver kept chipping away. Murray drove for a basket and was fouled, converting the free throw to cut the Lakers’ lead to two points.
Murray’s two free throws with 11 seconds left in the third made it 84-84 before Davis drained a three-pointer to put the Lakers up 87-84 heading into the final period.
That’s when James took over. Fouled on back-to-back baskets he made the free-throws to stretch the Lakers lead to 95-88 with 9:33 remaining.
James scored nine straight points late in the period – a stretch capped by a three-pointer that put the Lakers up 115-103 with 1:57 left.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever witnessed a guy take over a game the way he did in the fourth quarter tonight in person,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of James. “It was remarkable.”
James is in the NBA Finals for the 10th time – and the first time with the Lakers.
“I’m extremely proud to be a part of this franchise getting back to where it belongs, and that’s playing for championships,” James said.
Davis is in the championship series for the first time in his first season in Los Angeles, after his move from New Orleans.
“Feels good,” Davis said. “It’s good to get something like this accomplished with this group of guys.
“We battled through a lot this year, starting with the beginning of the season. We know the job’s not done. It’s a great feeling, but we got four more to win for the ultimate goal.”
Nuggets star Jokic said he and his teammates would never forget their experience in the bubble, where the NBA resumed play in July four months after halting play in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We had a really good group of guys,” Jokic said. “There was a lot of fight in us. We had six elimination games.
“Today, they were better,” he said. “They won the game. LeBron was amazing.”