NBA playoffs: Lonnie Walker IV becomes latest Laker to shine, while Warriors continue to wilt
LOS ANGELES — Every game, someone new steps into the comfortable spotlight for the Los Angeles Lakers, a group becoming more confident in itself by the game.
Every game, someone with the champion Golden State Warriors seems to wilt under the pressure of defending a title, creating a new issue for Steve Kerr and Stephen Curry to manage.
The Lakers are proving to be something greater than your average seventh seed, no longer a happy-to-be-here outfit, and moved one step closer to eliminating the champions by way of a nail-biting 104-101 win at Crypto.com Arena on Monday night.
Two nights ago, it was D’Angelo Russell taking on an offensive posture and pacing the Lakers to a blowout win. This time, it was little-used Lonnie Walker IV who starred — nearly outscoring the Warriors himself with all 15 of his points in the fourth quarter.
He was bouncy and opportunistic, evident from his initial insertion in the fourth when the Lakers needed a boost. You kept wondering when Darvin Ham was going to take him out and turn the night back to LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
James and Davis kept focusing on the defensive end, each making key stops when the Warriors threatened. The last was when the duo gummed up a signature Warriors play, where Draymond Green drove looking for Klay Thompson but Davis and James switched on the screen, resulting in a James steal.
They both admitted later they were happy to be involved in the action — corporate knowledge of what the Warriors do traditionally sometimes works in their favor.
They left the offense to players more equipped to handle it, especially Walker IV.
With each minute that passed, he kept reminding himself and others why he was in the consistent rotation to start the season and had big nights until things changed with all the February personnel moves that moved him out of the rotation.
“You know, weathered the storm, learn how to dance in the storm,” Walker IV said. “There’s things that are uncontrollables, you know, I got injured … but I stuck with it. I stayed in the gym still being a great teammate, and just being professional.”
He brought the storm to the Warriors, looking confident and catching them unexpectedly. Again, it allowed James and Davis to focus on defense aside from spurts where both exerted themselves to keep the Lakers in the game. They teetered often, but didn’t break.
“When your mind and heart is in a good place, the body follows,” Ham said of Walker IV. “Kudos to him. We kept going possession by possession, next play mentality. Lonnie Walker is right in the middle of that.”
Davis ended his up-down, up-down performances with a 23-point, 15-rebound night, but his defense was all world yet again. James helped pull the Lakers from minute deficits, and although he didn’t shoot particularly well, at times looking downright sloppy, did just enough to manufacture a stat line of 27 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists in 42 minutes. At a point in the fourth quarter, he was pulled out by Ham but put himself back in 10 seconds later without even taking a seat on the bench.
After starting the fourth quarter down 7, James engineered a run to tie the game when the Warriors threatened to run away and tie the series.
“We spent a big chunk of halftime looking at clips. Sometimes you have to listen to your players,” Ham said. “You gotta listen to your players; it’s gotta be collaborative. People are looking at the game in an honest and genuine way. LeBron did that. Doing what he always does.”
The Warriors, well, they seemed intent on making things as hard on themselves as possible and now they’ve probably dug a hole four championship rings won’t dig them out of. Multiple times in the second half they had chances to put the Lakers away.
It wouldn’t have been easy, the Lakers certainly felt as desperate as they needed to be, but the Warriors had an advantage. But Curry had a masterful night everywhere except from the 3-point line — somewhat similar to Game 2 when he controlled the tempo and set up teammates for a party of open shots.
He handled the game like Magic Johnson, or even James in his prime with a triple-double: 31 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds.
Unlike Game 2, though, the Warriors needed Curry to put the team on his back. Perhaps that’s unfair to ask considering all the orchestrating he’s done, but Curry has reached the strata where nothing is impossible in these spaces.
He hit just 3-of-14 from 3 — meaning he’s due, in a way. But they needed him in that realm on this night. Thompson had a nightmare showing in the series he felt was a dream come true, launching nonsense when the Warriors needed sound play. Actually, he did it twice — thus illustrating the walk on the wild side that seems to be their trademark through the decade or an outright lack of respect for the severity of the series they’re in.
In two games in his hometown, Thompson has shot 8-of-22 and was a minus-21. But that pales in comparison to Jordan Poole, who has disappeared in his minutes and has looked out of sorts and out of confidence.
That left Curry alone offensively. Kerr dialed up Gary Payton II to the starting lineup and it got the Warriors off to a great start. Payton II and Moses Moody’s activity got the Warriors on the break many times after stops and it caught the Lakers off guard.
But they needed set offense and Curry couldn’t depend on largely anyone else. Payton II scored 17 in 23 minutes, but if he and Andrew Wiggins are the main scorers behind Curry, something went wrong.
For whatever reason, he couldn’t deliver in the way he’s most lethal — missing on a floater that would’ve tied the game with 26 seconds left and after Green retrieved an offensive rebound, launching from 30 feet.
Both were in the face of Davis, whom James called the best defensive player in the game during his postgame interview on TNT. Davis was steady, even though he faded late in terms of fatigue, but he kept the Warriors spooked enough to prevent them from running away in terms of points in the paint.
The Warriors attacked the Lakers and used their speed throughout. It was their fourth-quarter offense that spelled doom.
And it’s what’s facing both teams in San Francisco Wednesday night — one team growing and the other staggering, looking for answers.