LOS ANGELES—Although Lonnie Walker began the season as a starter for the Los Angeles Lakers, he got injured and slipped all the way out of their rotation after they transformed their roster at the trade deadline.
Walker didn’t sulk or complain. He cheered from the bench. Worked even harder in practice. Waited for his chance to shine.
And when it arrived, the unsung pro with inextinguishable confidence outshot Stephen Curry in the fourth quarter of a playoff win that put his Lakers on the brink of an unlikely trip to the Western Conference finals.
“(It’s) the greatest feeling you could ever imagine,” Walker said with a smile. “As a kid, this is something I’ve been dreaming of.”
Walker scored all of his 15 points in a phenomenal fourth quarter, and the Lakers rallied late to take a 3-1 second-round series lead with a 104-101 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.
LeBron James scored 27 points and Anthony Davis had 23 points and 15 rebounds for the seventh-seeded Lakers, who moved one win away from knocking off the champions with their eighth consecutive home victory since March.
Los Angeles overcame Curry’s third career postseason triple-double down the stretch largely because of Walker, who has made a seismic impact in returning to the Lakers’ rotation in this series. He went 6 for 9 in the fourth quarter, starting with a 3-pointer on the opening possession of the period to cut Golden State’s lead to four points.
After sitting out Game 1, Walker contributed nine points in Game 2 and 12 more in Game 3. His emergence in this series is a shocker to most, but not to Walker or his teammates.
“I’m a scorer mentality first,” Walker said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in myself. I know what I’m capable of, and after a lot of sacrifice and a lot of time in the gym, the fruition finally came today.”
Walker eventually hit the go-ahead jumper with 1:53 to play. Curry’s layup with 1:05 left trimmed the Lakers’ lead to one point, but Curry missed a long jumper and a 3-point attempt on Golden State’s next possession before Walker made two free throws with 15 seconds left, and Los Angeles got one last defensive stop to seal it.
“We don’t win this game tonight without Lonnie Walker, that’s for sure,” James said. “As hard as this game was, it’s going to be even harder. We understand that. We know that.”
Game 5 is Wednesday night in San Francisco.
Curry had 31 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists in his 13th career triple-double for the sixth-seeded Warriors, who will have to overcome a 3-1 series deficit for only the second time in franchise history to continue their National Basketball Assciation (NBA) title defense. Golden State also did it in the 2016 Western Conference finals.
“It feels like what it is: (a) 3-1 (deficit). You go home, take care of business, get a win, and the momentum is right back in your favor,” coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s all it is. … The Lakers did a great job of holding serve here, so now we’ve got to go back and get a win at home and flip the momentum.”
The Warriors led by 12 late in the third quarter, but the Lakers chased down the champs and finished them with Walker leading the way in front of even James and Davis, who hugged Walker after the buzzer.
“The kid is a beautiful kid,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “He fell out of the rotation through no fault of his own, but he remained professional. He remained high-spirited, positive, and really kept working on his game every day, especially in these playoffs. When your mind is in the right place, your body follows.”
Gary Payton II scored a season-high 15 points in his first start of the season for Golden State, but Klay Thompson had his second straight quiet game in Los Angeles, scoring nine points in 41 minutes. Andrew Wiggins added 17 points for the Warriors, who made just 25 combined 3-pointers in their two games in Los Angeles after making 21 apiece in the first two games in San Francisco.
“We’re still positive,” Payton said. “We know we have them down the line. We’ve just got to make one more run late, and you just create that space and opportunity.”
Kerr switched to a three-guard starting lineup to affect the Los Angeles defense that held the Warriors to 97 points in Game 3, and the changes largely worked: Davis, who blocked 11 shots in the first three games, wasn’t able to protect the rim with the same ferocity when his defensive matchups required him to go out to the perimeter, and the Warriors capitalized with 52 points in the paint.
The Lakers compensated: They made all 20 of their free throws, and Austin Reaves added 21 points.
But they won with a gritty, timely effort by Walker, who picked up the Lakers’ slack when D’Angelo Russell scored just four points on 1-for-10 shooting after a strong performance in Game 3.
Curry secured the 13th triple-double of his career early in the fourth quarter, but he missed nine of 10 3-point attempts spanning three quarters. The most prolific three-point shooter in NBA history finished 3 for 14 from distance.
Image credits: AP