LeBron James returned the Los Angeles Lakers to glory with an MVP performance in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
In the far distant future, when the basketball archeologists start digging for DNA to make sense of the 2020 NBA Finals, what do you suppose they will discover and determine?
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For starters, they’ll be amazed to know that a world champion was crowned after arriving at Disney World rather than before. And studies will show such activity occurred in autumn and not summertime when the Larry O’Brien Trophy is normally awarded.
Mainly, though, there will be compelling and unimpeachable proof that the Los Angeles Lakers had glory restored at the same place and on the same night LeBron James saw his greatness continue.
“Laker Nation wants their respect, and I want my damn respect, too,” said the player who claimed his fourth title and also a fourth Finals MVP as a parting gift.
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This was a joint celebration of a storied franchise and an age-defying superstar, who needed each other, who took a victory lap together with a gallop after winning the series four games to two over the Miami Heat. The Lakers had missed the playoffs entirely the last six years while LeBron watched them from home last summer after a groin injury got the best of him in his first season in LA.
But then Purple and gold confetti fell almost as rapidly as the Heat in a Game 6 that was a LeBron-infused Laker demolition almost from tip-off; they were up 30 points before half-time. The team and their leader gave it their all on Sunday night in a smashing performance, and the only thing the Lakers left was no doubt.
That’s 17 titles now for the Lakers, tying the Celtics for the NBA record, and LeBron’s third with as many teams; no all-time great has ever done that.
What made this dynamic between team and star work is that LeBron felt an important responsibility to see the Lakers through, and vice versa.
“Once he put that trust in us, we had to deliver,” Lakers president Rob Pelinka said. “There was no other option. We are grateful to put him in that position to get his fourth championship.”
Once again, on the highest stage, LeBron was a tornado. He averaged 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, 8.5 assists and shot 59.1 per cent in the series. He never had a poor game or showed any slippage or made a grave error. His consistency and high level was remarkable for someone at age 35 and in his 17th season. He also stayed sturdy, a testament to the body that refused to fail him despite all those years of tread wear.
He previously won titles twice in Miami with a pair of stars, then hauled Cleveland to their first championship ever, then arrived in Los Angeles two summers ago bringing hope and heightened expectations that were a bit unrealistic initially. He didn’t have Anthony Davis then, and after getting injured, he didn’t have the playoffs, either. That slippage struck a nerve within LeBron, and also an untapped source of motivation that pushed him this far.
“It fuelled me because no matter what I have done in my career, there was rumblings of doubt comparing me to the history of the game,” he said.
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As for this latest championship, he and the Lakers did it under unusual circumstances, spending almost four months inside a security-sealed environment caused by a pandemic that delayed the season from March to July. But the journey never wavered – the Lakers lost only five games in the playoffs – and LeBron’s resolve only magnified and solidified in this bubble.
“Going into the unknown” is how he described the Disney trip from start to finish, adding: “Once I got inside here, I said ‘This is my mission. This is why I’m here’. I wanted to keep my energy in the right place.”
He knew what was at stake, the task of restoring shine to the Lakers while pushing his own legend beyond yet another boundary. This was accomplished with a nightly display of leading by example and occasionally dropping triple-doubles and delivering defining plays in each round.
“I have always believed in LeBron James,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “He is the greatest basketball player the universe has ever seen. It has just been a remarkable experience coaching him. Seeing him take this group that was not in the playoffs last year, with a roster constructed overnight, and taking us to the promised land. I can’t say enough about him.”
Vogel said that witnessing LeBron on game nights doesn’t present the total picture or describe the star’s true meaning to the team, that LeBron’s impact is evident beneath the surface and behind the scenes. Vogel explained: “When you think you know, you don’t know.”
LeBron couldn’t grab this championship, though, without Davis. The Lakers traded their future away last summer in the form of young players and draft picks, and sweetened the deal by tossing in the Hollywood sign and the Santa Monica pier to fetch a co-star. And no matter what happens from here, the Lakers came out ahead in that trade with New Orleans. It freed Davis. It saved LeBron. It restored the franchise.
Davis at times this season was superior to LeBron. In the postseason and all the way until the final game, Davis was a heavy presence at both ends, hitting shots from all over the court and being a defensive intimidator at the opposite rim. Theirs was a partnership that bonded quickly mainly because their personalities and goals were aligned.
“I can’t really explain it,” James said. “Some things you just know in any type of relationship, you have that feel, that vibe. You can’t explain what links you to somebody and it’s that organic. First thing I think about is the respect between us, no ego. We challenge each other. He wants me to be great, I want him to be great.”
The Lakers enjoyed a bountiful regular season, highlighted by back-to-back wins in early March over the Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers – a turning point, according to Vogel. LeBron was massive in those defining wins. Then the season came to an abrupt halt on March 11 when concerns over the coronavirus intensified. The layoff perhaps helped LeBron, if only because it allowed him to delay the uptick in wear-and-tear that goes along with the playoffs. Also, those two contenders that the Lakers beat just before the season halted didn’t show up on their postseason path at Disney.
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The Lakers were also nudged along by the memory and spirit of Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in January along with his daughter, Gigi, and others.
Pelinka said: “Kobe and Gianna have guided this team all year. For us to be able to win this championship doesn’t take away from the sting of the loss. What it does is allow us to add to their legacy. This Lakers championship of 2020 is to build on that legacy and honour them. The moment couldn’t be any more special.”
For the Buss family, this was yet another triumph. Following their previous title in 2010, there was upheaval and a shift of power within the family ownership, with Jeanie assuming full control. She steered the organisation from the rubble caused by failed trades and free agent signings, elevated Pelinka after an uncomfortable organisational fallout with Magic Johnson, and made the Lakers attractive enough for LeBron to sign as a free agent.
“Getting Jeanie back in this position is something that fuelled me,” said LeBron. “I know how special it was for her. I’m proud to be a Laker.”
Vogel was hired only after Ty Lue turned down the job. Vogel is a reputable defense-first coach who had the perfect anchor in Davis, and the coach also managed to get LeBron, who was lackluster on that side of the court last season, with the program. It was defense that swamped the Heat in Game 6, limiting Miami to just 36 first-half points and effectively snuffing any chance of a seventh game.
“Our guys saw the value very early on,” said Vogel. “They brought in.”
There was supporting help from a few beyond-their-prime stars, mainly Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo. A role player, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, saved his finest moments as a Laker for the Finals when he hit big shots and kept rallies alive.
But make no mistake, this was a LeBron production, pure and simple.
Pelinka: “He’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. The amount of energy he spent keeping his team-mates together and keeping them concentrated on a common goal was incredible.”
Vogel: “To have his mind and to use him as a resource and partner with him, to collaborate decisions on how to move forward with our group was fantastic. Every damn day in film he is leading the charge in getting our team better. I don’t think people can undervalue that.”
And LeBron, trying to put championship No 4 in perspective:
“They are all special in their own right. One is not less than another. I can’t say one is more difficult than the other. I can say I never won in this atmosphere. This was very challenging and difficult. It played with your mind, your body. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have ups and downs in the bubble. I’ve never been without my family this long. Somehow I was able to keep the main thing the main thing. So this is right up there with one of the greatest accomplishments I have.”
When the confetti dropped, LeBron engaged his team-mates in a group hug and dance, a snapshot of gratitude and relief that will remain in this small gym forever. Maybe somewhere there will also be a towel left behind by Davis, who cried into it, his unibrow soaked. Those will serve as clues many years from now for historians searching for what happened on October 11 inside the Disney grounds.
And then there will also be something they won’t find: a single positive coronavirus test.
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