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Lakers make playoffs on LeBron James’ game-winning 3-pointer

LeBron James drives to the basket during the Lakers' play-in game against the Golden State Warriors
LeBron James drives to the basket during the Lakers’ play-in game against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night at Staples Center.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Steve Kerr’s face has aged over time, the stress from annual meetings with LeBron James for the NBA’s biggest prize enough to make some blond hair turn gray and wrinkle his smooth skin.

“There’s no bigger challenge in basketball than trying to beat LeBron,” Kerr said before Wednesday’s play-in game at Staples Center.

And he couldn’t have been more correct. Even a hobbled version of the Lakers superstar was hard to get rid of, his banged-up right ankle slowly loosening up as the game got tighter.

But if beating LeBron James is basketball’s biggest challenge, stopping Stephen Curry has got to be second.

In an all-time start to the NBA’s play-in tournament, James and Curry delivered on a performance that set the bar incredibly high for the NBA’s experiment in the future. For 47 minutes it was back and forth, until the NBA’s ultimate challenge won out.

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With a spot in the playoffs at stake, James hit the final incredible shot of the night — a miracle three-pointer to beat the shot clock from way behind the line — giving the Lakers a 103-100 win.

After making the shot, James pointed to his left eye, poked minutes earlier by Draymond Green, to let Curry know his aim was altered.

James saw three rims; he aimed for the one in the middle.

The Lakers will now get a clear look at the Phoenix Suns on Sunday in the first round of the playoffs, the win securing the No. 7 seed for James and his team.

“We just had to bring the fight to the fight,” James said.

Up three with just two seconds left, Anthony Davis helped force a Warriors turnover to seal the game. It was Golden State’s 20th of the night, the Lakers’ defensive pressure helping undo a mostly disastrous night on offense.

James finished with a triple-double — 22 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Davis added 25 and Alex Caruso had 14 off the bench.

Curry, the NBA’s leading scorer, had 37, but the faulty inbounds pass robbed him of a chance to tie the game.

Before the game, Frank Vogel got say something he hasn’t gotten to say enough this year, the words coming at the perfect time.

“Everybody is good to go,” the Lakers coach said.

Lakers-Suns schedule for first-round playoff series.
(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

But things were still not perfect. Schroder admitted to not having all of his wind back after a 10-day stint in the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols. James’ injured ankle wasn’t 100%. Davis was technically listed as “questionable” with a shoulder injury though he said he thought he’d be fine.

“We’re happy that we have everyone available,” Vogel said. “But like I said, it would be nice to have another week or two for guys to really get their legs under them.”

Early on, the Lakers’ offense, which had struggled even when the team was at full strength for brief stretches this year, was as bad as it had been all year to start the game, their best players clanking shots.

“We didn’t play tough enough,” Vogel said of the first half.

James made only one of seven in the half, Davis was two for 12 and Schroder one for nine.

At the end of the first, Curry hit a three-pointer, navigating around Schroder, Davis and Caruso, high-stepping his way into the locker room with a 13-point lead.

At halftime, veterans Jared Dudley and Markieff Morris lit into the team. The Lakers responded.

“We just kept going, kept playing,” Davis said.

Had the Lakers won more games, they wouldn’t have been in one of the least envious positions in basketball — a win away from the playoffs with Curry standing in the way.

But the Lakers still had James — and like Kerr said, no challenge is greater.

Bothered by that ankle, James’ speed and explosion just weren’t there most of wednesday. But as the game wore on, those flashes grew longer, the Lakers flipping the game with their defense.

They grabbed their first lead in the fourth, and when the Warriors pushed back, the Lakers didn’t back down.

“You never want to poke the bear,” Davis said.

And they’re awake now.


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