LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are heading to the NBA Finals after a 117-107 win over the Denver Nuggets Saturday night in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. The Nuggets made a valiant effort, but were unable to overcome a third straight 3-1 series deficit.
James, who finished with 38 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists, was determined all night long, bullying his way to the rim and to the free throw line to consistently get his team high-percentage baskets. He absolutely took over down the stretch, scoring 16 points in the fourth quarter to send the Nuggets packing. His co-star Anthony Davis battled first-half foul trouble, but put up 27 points on 8-for-16 shooting as the Lakers thwarted Denver's second-half comeback bid.
The Nuggets were unable to get into a rhythm in the first half due to more foul trouble for Nikola Jokic and an injury to Jamal Murray, which appeared to make him less than 100 percent. True to form, the Nuggets cut the Lakers' 10-point halftime lead to just three to start the fourth quarter, but they were unable to reproduce the heroics that got them to this point. Jokic and Jerami Grant led the team with 20 points apiece, with Murray chipping in 19 on 7-for-17 shooting.
The Lakers now seek the franchise's 17th NBA title, and will meet the winner of the Eastern Conference finals series between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. Here are a few takeaways from Game 5.
1. LeBron is just too much
Whenever anyone brought up the fact that the Nuggets had already come back from two 3-1 deficits to suggest that they might do the same against the Lakers, the inevitable answer was: Yeah, but those teams didn't have LeBron.
It might come off as a somewhat lazy take, but on Saturday we found out it's still 100 percent true. James came out with force in the beginning of the game, setting the tone by getting to the rim. He took over in the second quarter to get the Lakers a 10-point halftime lead. And then in the fourth, he extinguished all Denver hope by going on a signature scoring barrage in every manner imaginable to secure his first NBA Finals appearance with the Lakers -- his 10th overall.
James scored 16 points of his 38 points in the fourth quarter, making 7-of-10 field goals in the frame.
James came into Game 5 averaging 24 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, yet it still seemed he hadn't fully put his stamp on the series. That all changed with his gem to close out the Nuggets. There's been a lot of talk in recent years about whether Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard had surpassed LeBron as the game's best player. LeBron certainly made a strong argument that those ideas are nonsense with his performance on Saturday.
"My teammates said, 'bring us home,' and it's my responsibility to try to make the right plays and do the right things on the floor to help us win ball games," James said after the win. "We have a few guys on our team that have never been to the Finals before, so I took that responsibility as well. My shoulders are wide enough to carry a lot of load, but my mind is stronger. I always keep my mind strong, and I'm just happy to be in this position."
2. Denver's future is incredibly bright
Say what you will about their dramatic playoff run, but there's no denying that Jokic and Murray established themselves as superstars with their spectacular performances. These two guys dragged a hobbled, imbalanced roster to the Western Conference finals -- keep in mind that Jokic is 25 and Murray is 23. On top of those two, 26-year-old Grant established himself, particularly in the final two games of the series, as a potential third star with his two-way ability. He has a player option this offseason which he'll likely decline, and you can expect the Nuggets will do what they have to do to retain his services. Michael Porter Jr., a 22-year-old rookie, experienced quite a learning curve in this series, but his offensive potential is obvious.
Even with Jokic, Murray, Grant and Porter in the fold, it's clear that the Nuggets need some more help. But this is a good problem to have. The core is there, and now it's just about adding the fringe pieces that can take them from a fun, young team to the NBA Finals. It will be exciting to watch the Nuggets' growth over the coming years.
"I think all great teams and champions have to go through the pains of losing, and nothing is handed to you in this business," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the loss. "We're making steps. We're moving in the right direction with a great group of guys. I wouldn't want to be with any other group. I love our team. I really do."
3. 'Job not done'
It was funny watching the Lakers celebrate a conference championship, knowing that LeBron has been through this song and dance so many times. Even James, however, was sure to note how important it is not to take such accomplishments for granted -- especially in a year like this. That being said, the goal for LeBron and the Lakers was never to win a conference title, and now they set their sights on the NBA Finals.
Whether they get the Miami Heat or the Boston Celtics, the Lakers will likely be favored in the series, and with good reason. After all their offensive concerns heading into the playoffs, the Lakers have the second-best offensive rating in the entire postseason, while their defense has remained among the best in the league.
"The job is not done for me personally," James said after the game. "For us as a franchise, I am extremely proud of getting the franchise back to where it belongs. Playing for championships."