Lonnie Walker IV is no stranger to saving the Los Angeles Lakers. Let's wind the clocks back to November. The Lakers have just fallen to 2-10. LeBron James is injured. Russell Westbrook is still on the team, Dennis Schroder hadn't even debuted yet and Troy Brown Jr. was in the starting lineup. At that point, any further setbacks might have ended the season. Walker prevented any. In the next six games, Walker averaged 19.5 points per game on 51/46/94 shooting splits to help drag the Lakers back up to 7-11. In the process, he bought James the time he needed to get healthy and the rest of the roster the time it needed to coalesce. Were it not for Walker, the Lakers probably wouldn't have even made the playoffs.
And were it not for Walker? The Lakers might be staring elimination scenario right now. The Lakers trailed the Golden State Warriors by as many as 12 points in the second half of Game 4. They were down seven after three quarters. A loss would've meant giving the Warriors home-court advantage back. Golden State went 33-8 at home this season. The Lakers are undefeated at home this postseason. Their best chance at reaching the Western Conference finals relied on winning their own home games -- all of their home games. The Warriors came closer to beating them in Los Angeles than any team has this postseason.
And then they ran into Lonnie Walker IV. When the fourth quarter began, he had scored zero points. When it ended, he had 15. It was the highest-scoring fourth quarter from a Laker reserve since a little-known rookie named Kobe Bryant dropped 17 in the fourth quarter of a 1997 battle with the Utah Jazz. If you go shot by shot, you can even see Walker's transformation from hot role player to bona fide closer.
We open with a scene that sounds very familiar to NBA fans over the past decade: LeBron James hunting Stephen Curry in pick-and-roll. Andrew Wiggins dips into the paint off of the switch, and Walker opens the fourth quarter with a 3-point swish to cut the lead down to four.
The next bucket is pure effort. Wiggins mishandles a pass from Draymond Green. Walker outraces him to the ball and outraces everyone to the basket.
By now, the Lakers have gained some confidence. With 8:30 remaining in a tied fourth quarter, the Lakers ran a sideline out-of-bounds play for Walker, with Anthony Davis setting him a quick screen for a quicker jumper. Lakers lead 88-86.
Walker is scorching by this point. He finds himself alone with Curry on him after catching a deflected pass by James in the corner. No problem. He sets up a drive, forces Curry to rotate his hips and then goes up for a jumper with his defender off balance. Tie game.
As the fourth quarter reached its climax, the Lakers finally came full circle. Instead of Walker screening for James, it was James screening for Walker with just under four minutes remaining. Walker again plays drop-coverage to protect against a James attack, so Walker glides into a runner to tie the game yet again.
Once teams reach the final two minutes, there is no more intricate scheming. Individual players need to make shots against great defense. Walker delivers, swishing a jumper over Curry that would give the Lakers a lead they would never surrender.
The Warriors had a chance to retake the lead with around 20 seconds to go. Curry bricks the 3-pointer. Who comes up with the rebound? Walker, who gets fouled and sinks to the two free throws the Lakers need to, at a minimum, assure overtime. In the end, it was enough to seal the victory.
"I don't know if he scored all their points in the fourth, but it felt like it," Warriors coach Steve Kerr quipped after the game, reflecting the opinions of the millions watching at home. It was a career-defining performance from an extraordinarily unlikely hero.
Walker wasn't even in the rotation as of Game 2 of the Golden State series. Despite his early-season theatrics, a December injury and the mid-season revamping of the roster cost him regular playing time. Malik Beasley theoretically replaced his shooting. Brown is the better defender and a similar athlete. So Walker waited his turn. He played solid garbage-time minutes in Game 2, so coach Darvin Ham promoted him into the rotation over the struggling Brown and Beasley. In Game 3, he played 24 solid minutes. After Game 4, Ham offered a mountain of praise to a player he wasn't even using a week ago.
"The kid is a beautiful kid," Ham said. "He fell out of the rotation through no fault of his own. We made the trade. He had an injury. There's just a lot of different circumstances that weren't his fault. He remained a trooper, he remained professional, remained high-spirited, positive, and really kept working on his game, attacking his game every day, really staying locked in on the information especially during these playoffs up to the point where he was able to crack the rotation. When your mind and your heart is in a good place your body follows."
The performance was a testament to everything Ham, Walker and the Lakers have built this season. Nothing ever came easy. Circumstances changed frequently. But nobody ever lost focus. Players competed whether they got 30 minutes or 30 seconds on the court. The Lakers needed a savior on Monday, and for the second time this season, Walker delivered.