Led by 30 points from James, the Los Angeles Lakers eliminated the Warriors with a 122-101 win in Game 6 on Friday. They will face the Denver Nuggets, who advanced past the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, in the Western Conference finals.
It is the first time the Warriors have been eliminated by a Western Conference team in the playoffs since they hired head coach Steve Kerr in 2014. They have since either reached the NBA Finals — winning four times and losing twice, once to James and the Cleveland Cavaliers and once to the Toronto Raptors — or missed the playoffs altogether in 2020 and 2021.
That 2021 campaign also ended in the play-in tournament, where they lost the first game to the Lakers.
James was masterful as ever on Friday, shooting 10-of-14 with 9 rebounds, 9 assists and 2 steals in addition to his scoring, while Anthony Davis dominated on defense and on the boards with 17 points, 20 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks. The Lakers are the second team to reach the conference finals from the play-in tournament this postseason, joining the Miami Heat.
How do you stop the Warriors on offense for an entire series? Turns out the answer is to have Davis guarding the interior while they go cold from 3-point range. The Warriors entered the game having shot 31.7% from deep in their previous three games and once again had a rough night at the perimeter, shooting a collective 13-of-48.
The struggles came from every player the Warriors usually rely on to hit teams from long range. Stephen Curry didn't look like Stephen Curry, shooting an inefficient 11-of-28 for 32 points. Klay Thompson definitely didn't look like the Klay Thompson of old, with 3-of-19 shooting and 8 points.
And Jordan Poole, well, he just disappeared, again. Last year's playoff breakout star finished a miserable series with 7 points on 3-of-10 shooting.
The Lakers never trailed Friday, jumping out to a double-digit lead midway through the first quarter. The Warriors kept the lead within single digits for much of the second, but an Austin Reaves halfcourt heave pushed the Lakers' lead to 10 as the buzzer sounded. Reaves finished the game with 20 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds.
That was as close as the Warriors would get for the rest of the game.
Warriors never regained champion form this season
The series loss ends a turbulent season for the Warriors, which started with a bizarre feud between Poole and Draymond Green.
For years, the Warriors' plan was to let a new wave of younger players — led by Poole, James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and more — keep the team among the NBA's elite, but they needed Curry and Co. just to make the playoffs. Their bench was notoriously weak throughout the season, and their aging core couldn't cover the holes they used to.
Golden State finished the regular season 44-38, sixth in the West, and needed seven games to survive the Sacramento Kings in the first round. They weren't so lucky when they displayed the same form in the next round.
How do the Lakers match up against the Nuggets?
While defeating the Warriors has often been the NBA's version of slaying the dragon, the Lakers' next opponent will likely represent a stiffer challenge.
The Nuggets, the top seed in the West, have been great all season, starting with MVP runner-up Nikola Jokić. Instead of holding down the paint alongside Green and Kevon Looney, Davis will be tasked with handling the best passing big man of all time, who is playing with the best supporting cast of his career.
The bright side is the Lakers went 2-2 against the Nuggets this season, and one of those losses came with James and Davis both sidelined with injuries. The Nuggets are obviously elite, but the Lakers' pair of stars and post-trade deadline reinforcements give them a ceiling as high as anyone at this point.
Game 1 of the Western Conference finals is scheduled for Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET in Denver (ESPN).