The ultimate anguish. The ultimate joy. This season, for LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, had it all. And it ended in the only fashion that they deemed would be acceptable, with them back atop the basketball world.
For the first time since Kobe Bryant’s fifth and final title a decade ago, the Lakers are NBA champions. James had 28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists, and the Lakers beat the Miami Heat 106-93 on Sunday night to win the NBA Finals in six games. “Our organization wants their respect. Laker Nation wants their respect,” James said. “And I want my damn respect, too.”
Anthony Davis had 19 points and 15 rebounds for the Lakers, who dealt with the enormous anguish that followed the death of the iconic Bryant in January and all the challenges that came with leaving home for three months to play at Walt Disney World in a bubble designed to keep inhabitants safe from the coronavirus.
It would be, James predicted, the toughest title to ever win. “We have a Ph.D in adversity, I’ll tell you that much,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We’ve been through a lot.”
They made the clincher look easy. James won his fourth title, doing it with a third different franchise — and against the Heat franchise that showed him to to become a champion.
Bam Adebayo had 25 points and 10 rebounds for Miami, which got 12 points from Jimmy Butler — the player who, in his first Heat season, got the team back to title contention. Rajon Rondo scored 19 points for the Lakers, who put together the elite talents of James and Davis with this moment in mind.
And Davis, as white and gold confetti coated the floor around him, spent his first moments as an NBA champion thinking of Bryant. “All we wanted to do was do it for him,” Davis said. “And we didn’t let him down...I know he’s looking down on us, proud of us.”
With that, the league’s bubble chapter, put together after a 4 1/2-month suspension of play that started March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic and came with a promise that it would raise awareness to the problems of racial injustice and police brutality, is over.
So, too, is a season that saw the league and China get into political sparring, the death on Jan. 1 of commissioner emeritus David Stern — the man who did so much to make the league what it is — and then the shock on January 26 that came with the news that Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other died in a helicopter crash.
The Lakers said they were playing the rest of the season in his memory. They delivered what Bryant did five times for LA — a ring, and the clincher was emphatic.
“You have written your own inspiring chapter in the great Laker history,” Lakers owner Jeanie Buss said. “And to Laker Nation, we have been through a heartbreaking tragedy with the loss of our beloved Kobe Bryant. Let this trophy serve as a reminder of when we come together, believe in each other, incredible things can happen.”
Game 6 was over by halftime, the Lakers taking a 64-36 lead into the break. The Heat never led and couldn’t shoot from anywhere: 35 per cent from two-point range in the half, 33 per cent from 3-point range and even an uncharacteristic 42 per cent from the line, not like any of it really mattered. The Lakers were getting everything they wanted and then some, outscoring Miami 36-16 in the second quarter and doing all that with James making just one shot in the period.
Rondo, now a two-time champion and the first to win NBA rings as a player in the cities of Boston and Los Angeles — the franchises now tied with 17 titles apiece — was 6 for 6 in the half, the first time he’d done that since November 2007. The Lakers’ lead was 46-32 with 5:00 left in the half, and they outscored Miami 18-4 from there until intermission.
Ball game. The 28-point halftime lead was the second-biggest in NBA Finals history, topped only by the Celtics leading the Lakers 79-49 on May 27, 1985.
“We didn’t get the final result that we wanted,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But even what I mentioned to the guys, these are going to be lifetime memories that we have together. This locker room...we’re going to remember this year, this season, this experience and that locker room brotherhood for the rest of our lives.”
True to form, the Heat — a No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference that finished with a losing record last season, a team that embraced the challenge of the bubble like none other — didn’t stop playing, not even when the deficit got to 36 in the third quarter. “We’re trending in the right direction,” Butler said. “We’re going to learn from this. We’re going to come back.”
A 23-8 run by Miami got the Heat to 90-69 with 8:37 left. But the outcome was never in doubt, and before long confetti was blasted into the air as the Lakers’ celebration formally and officially began. “Laker Nation,” Vogel, now a first-time champion who saw his title hopes as Indiana’s coach thwarted three times by James and the Heat, bellowed during the trophy ceremony. “We did it.”