LeBron James slid to the left, his eyes on the rim that’s on the end of the arena opposite from the slice of Lakers championship legacy he helped secure in 2020.
It had been a rough night, the Golden State Warriors getting layups on the Lakers’ and James’ defensive lapses. The rim had been unkind, even a one-on-one post-up on Stephen Curry coming up empty.
But there was momentum.
James and Austin Reaves were putting together the kind of stretch that had the home crowd engaged, that had them ready to explode late in Game 4 against Golden State.
So James stepped to the side, got open and shot.
The ball rattled in and popped out.
James’ night Monday underscored what’s been percolating below the surface during this playoff series with the Warriors. He’s carried teams against them before, doing more with less around him
But now, in Year 20 at age 38, could he do it alone again?
What if, though, he didn’t need to?
Lonnie Walker IV, the Lakers’ big Game 3 rotational adjustment, didn’t attempt a shot prior to the fourth quarter Monday, but his three on the first play set the tone for a wild finish that he, of all Lakers, led the push toward in a 104-101 win.
“We don’t win without him,” James said.
Walker scored 15 points, all in the fourth, while defending Klay Thompson and grabbing a key late rebound. Walker’s other five field goals in the quarter tied the score or gave the Lakers the lead, the last one for good with 1:53 left.
“He shined,” teammate Anthony Davis said. “…He always stayed mentally prepared.”
Walker and James accounted for 21 of the Lakers’ 27 fourth-quarter points, the team erasing a seven-point deficit to steal the win and keep home court advantage in the series. The Lakers lead 3-1, pushing the defending champions to the brink.
With Walker doing so much on offense, James was able to switch onto Curry and guard one of the toughest covers in the league. He had legs to make free throws and burst to draw fouls on Curry to get there.
They weren’t the biggest buckets or the showiest stops, but Lakers coach Darvin Ham said it was still familiar stuff from James.
“He has a lot of gas left in the tank,” Ham said. “When it’s money time, I’ve seen it, coached against him, when he’s in that mode. It’s special.”
And his teammates came with him.
James scored 27 on 25 shots with nine rebounds and six assists. Davis added 23 points and 15 rebounds. Reaves scored 21.
But Walker’s fourth quarter, which came after he fell out of the rotation following the trade deadline, ensured his team would win.
The Lakers head to Golden State where they’ll play a closeout Game 5 Wednesday.
“It’s going to be a tough one,” Ham said.
Curry, who despite a tough night from three-point range, still managed to conduct the Golden State offense with the precision of a maestro. No matter the moment, no matter the previous result, every time Curry touched the ball in Game 4, points felt at least like a probability if not an inevitability.
After making just two of his previous 11 threes, Curry hit a 26-foot three, drew a foul and made the free throw, finding the cameras on the far baseline to give them a howl.
With four minutes left, Curry’s push shot off the glass put his team up two.
But the Lakers never allowed him to fully ignite, Curry needed 30 shots to score 31 points, although he did have a triple-double with 14 assists and 10 rebounds.
It’s why this stage of the season is so tough, the NBA playoffs forcing teams to somehow get better and better with each game.
Monday in Game 4, that meant the Warriors and Steve Kerr changed the terms of play again, using their third starting lineup in the series in an effort to counter what the Lakers have done in grabbing the lead.
After Game 1, that meant using JaMychal Green in the starting lineup for Kevon Looney as they tried to put more shooting on the court. For a night, it worked and the Warriors evened the series.
But after the Lakers adjusted and dominated the game defensively in Game 3, with Davis blowing up entry passes with his length and instincts, Kerr again switched things up by benching Green and starting Gary Payton II.
It was the fifth different starting lineup for the Warriors this postseason.
Early with Payton in the game, the Warriors slowed down D’Angelo Russell from the kind of hot start that carried the Lakers in the first quarter Saturday. And with Payton setting screens, the Warriors were able to create easy three-on-two fastbreaks.
In the second half, Payton’s cutting helped the Warriors swing momentum, quickly undoing a 10-0 Lakers run with a 14-0 run.
The Lakers’ adjustments have been less obvious, defensive matchups and rotation tweaks. For instance, Monday, the Lakers sold Davis early in the first quarter instead of James, switching the normal substitution plan from the series.
One of those changes, to play Walker, continued to pay off.
But Walker had a turnover on a three-on-two, and Dennis Schroder, who played 35 minutes trying to guard Curry and Thompson, flipped a behind-the-back pass intended for Davis out of bounds, two huge empty possessions in a game in which they all felt so important.
With the Lakers up three and the Warriors needing the huge bucket, they turned the ball over twice, including once after a jump ball.
The team that’s been through it all couldn’t make the right play, with Draymond Green first and then Curry coughing up possession.
The Lakers, who made all 20 of their free throws, were able to dribble the clock out before James and Davis embraced Walker.
“It means a lot. I really can’t put into words, just truly ecstatic to be in this situation,” Walker said. “…It’s a great feeling honestly. I’m really going to cherish this day.”
Stars, at some point, will have to carry the Lakers. But it didn’t have to happen Monday.
And because of it, the Lakers have control of the series heading into Wednesday night’s closeout Game 5.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.