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LeBron James surges late to lead Lakers past Nuggets and into the NBA Finals

Lakers star LeBron James drives around Denver Nuggets forward Jerami Grant.
Lakers star LeBron James drives around Denver Nuggets forward Jerami Grant during the second half of the Lakers’ 117-107 win in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Saturday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

LeBron James sat on a basketball court littered with purple and gold confetti, stretching and taking a breath.

He thought about practical concerns at first. The team he’d just beat — the plucky Denver Nuggets who weren’t even supposed to get this far. The teammates he’d helped experience something they’d never seen before — particularly Anthony Davis. The next opponent, whether it be Boston or Miami.

Then, as the paper fragments fell onto his shoulders, he thought about his journey and looked around at this strange bubble where his mission was unfolding.

He signed with the Lakers to help a once-proud organization regain its shine, and in the fourth quarter of their first closeout game in the Western Conference finals, he made clear again and again and again that he was going to make good on his word.

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“This is what I came here for,” James said. “I heard all the conversations and everything that was said about why did I decide to come to L.A — the reason I came to L.A., it was not about basketball. All those conversations, just naysayers and things of that nature. I understood that, with the season I had last year and my injury, it just gave them more sticks and more wood to throw in the fire to continue to say the things that they would say about me.

“But it never stopped my journey and never stopped my mindset and never stopped my goal.”

With a 117-107 win in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday night, the Lakers eliminated the Nuggets to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in 10 years after six consecutive years of not even making the playoffs.

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Now there’s another trophy James wants.

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Highlights from the Lakers’ 117-107 win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Saturday.

“One step closer to the goal,” he said as he walked into the tunnel toward the locker room in Orlando with Davis trailing him.

Then he entered the locker room with Davis and went around shaking his teammates’ hands.

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On his first chance to close out the Nuggets, James lived up to his reputation. James is now 16-1 in closeout games and has never lost a series while up 3-1. He’s now made the NBA Finals with three teams.

This time he did it with a triple-double, scoring 38 points, with 16 rebounds and 10 assists — 16 of those points coming in a fourth quarter he dominated. Davis scored 27 points including a pair of three-pointers, a block and two steals, earning his first NBA Finals appearance.

Heading into the game, the Lakers were 26-1 when they had a double-digit lead at halftime, with their only loss coming to the Clippers. They held a 61-51 lead at the break and increased the margin to 16, but Nuggets forward Jerami Grant scored 14 points in the third quarter, picking up for foul-plagued Nikola Jokic, and Denver tied it at 84.

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Davis hit a three-pointer with one second left in the quarter to give L.A. the lead.

The Nuggets had roared back from 3-1 deficits in the first and second round. That spirited run ended Saturday night.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever witnessed a guy take over a game the way he did in the fourth quarter tonight,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of James. “It’s remarkable.”

Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the day the Lakers introduced this new team to the world. That was media day, Sept. 27, 2019, when James explained why he had told the Lakers’ brass that he wanted to make sure the offense went through Davis.

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“We got a brand-new coaching staff and brand-new players coming to our system, but we do all know how good Anthony Davis is,” James said.

Throughout the season, Davis thrived with James’ blessing and help. James taught Davis how to handle the pressure of championship expectations. He showed the 27-year-old star what it meant to help lead a favorite.

But even as he helped Davis grow into the role, it was James who lifted the team when they needed it, when his experience towered over theirs.

“My teammates said bring us home,” James said during the on-court celebration. “It’s my responsibility to try to make the right plays and do the right things on the floor to help us win ballgames. We have a few guys on our team that’s never been to the Finals before so I took that responsibility as well.

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“My shoulders is wide enough to carry a lot of load.”

That last line was one he also uttered in a darker time for the franchise.

Lakers forward Anthony Davis makes key plays in Saturday night’s clinching win over the Denver Nuggets and finally reaches the NBA’s biggest stage.

In the days after Kobe Bryant’s death, the Lakers held a meeting to try to heal and share stories about Bryant. James promised he’d carry them through it, saying he had wide shoulders for a reason.

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“Every time you put on purple and gold you think about his legacy and you think about him and what he meant to this franchise for 20-plus years,” James said Saturday night.

The last time the Lakers went to the Finals was 2010, when Bryant, with Pau Gasol’s help, won the franchise’s 16th title. During the next decade, every Finals but one — last year’s — included James.

Ganguli reported from Los Angeles.


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