LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The final moments of the longest season in NBA history were dominated by a feeling that ran entirely counter to the 13 months that preceded it:
Absolute dead certainty.
The Lakers smothered the Miami Heat, not surrendering any sliver of space willingly and pummeling them on the other end of the floor with bruising runs that have made LeBron James and Anthony Davis respected and feared in the basketball world.
Championships are won with talent, which the Lakers had. But they are also won with brute force, which the Lakers had.
And so in the most unpredictable, most emotionally taxing and most endurance-testing season any basketball team has ever played, the Lakers came out on top, 106-93, rolling over the Heat in the sixth game of the series with a thudding sense of finality to their 16-5 postseason run. There will be no historical arguments: The Lakers were the best team, and it was in the refrigerator by halftime, when they led by 28 points.
It was the 17th championship in franchise history for an organization that grew used to winning, but slogged through a decade without a Finals appearance and six of those without even making the playoffs.
James (28 points), in his 17th season, captained the effort for his fourth Finals MVP award – an honor he’s received along with every title he’s ever won at previous stints in Miami and Cleveland. But his fourth championship is one of his most defining: He became one of just four men in NBA history to win titles with three different franchises (teammate Danny Green also joined this club) and the only one of the quartet to be a foundational player on each of those teams.
James savored the moment with particular flair: He emerged from the victorious locker room several times to spray bystanders with champagne, and he puffed a cigar during his postgame press conference, calm as the smoke circled around him. It was a respite from some darker moments, as he called them, when he questioned the mission while isolated for 95 days in the bubble.
“I heard some rumblings from people that are not in the bubble, oh, you don’t have to travel, whatever,” he said. “People just doubting what goes on in here. This is right up there with one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve had.”
But even by his own Herculean standards, this Lakers clinching moment was particularly dominant: Changing their lineup to match a smaller Heat group, they outscored Miami by 20 points in the second quarter alone.
So inevitable was the approaching Lakers championship, Frank Vogel, the coach ever wary of putting the cart before the horse, told his team in a huddle: “We’re in the midst of a defensive masterpiece.”
History might remember these Lakers for the series that didn’t happen, as the Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks bowed out before wish-list super matches could take place. But here’s what did happen: The Lakers burst the bubble for the hottest team in Disney; they corralled two former MVPs; they knocked off one of the most impressive underdogs in recent postseason memory, and they wrapped it all up by making the team renowned for its toughness finally quit.
James, 35, stands atop a number of the NBA’s most hallowed playoff records, and in Game 6 he summited another: He passed Derek Fisher with 260 total playoff games played. He has more minutes, points and wins than anyone in playoff history – the only thing James is truly still chasing are the titles themselves.
For Davis – the teammate James first started leading to Los Angeles with a whisper back in November of 2018 – it was the first championship of a career that has long held great expectations. The NCAA national player of the year, March Madness champion and four-time All-NBA forward added a ring to his résumé at 27 – a fulfillment of a promise James made to him when they met for the first time as teammates.
Davis is expected to exercise a player option to become a free agent this summer, though few believe he’ll leave the Lakers. He declined to say he was coming back, but snuck in a reference to “this first year in L.A.”
“This has been nothing but joy,” he said. “Nothing but amazement.”
If any NBA champion has deserved to be known as “survivors,” it is these Lakers, who finished their season 353 days after it first began – longer than any NBA season in history.
It was lengthened by a four-and-a-half month hiatus for the coronavirus pandemic, an event that stopped the Lakers in their tracks as they were entering their best stretch of basketball. For much of that wait, the members of an aging roster were left unsure if they’d ever get the chance to fulfill their playoff potential at all.
It was a season interrupted by the death of Kobe Bryant in shocking fashion in January. The team was leveled by the news of the deadly helicopter crash. Players didn’t speak publicly for a week as they spent the ensuing days weeping over the memories of an NBA icon who had inspired them, challenged them and loomed over the franchise even in life in his operatic, memorable 20-year-career.
It was a year when the defining moments often happened behind closed doors: dinners locked in a hotel tower in Shanghai; tearfully trading stories of Bryant in the practice facility days after he died; terse discussions in a Florida ballroom about whether the season would re-restart.
Inevitably, the Lakers emerged from these moments – showing strength and rededication to pursuing a championship.
The Lakers were 21.8 seconds away from that title in Game 5 before their dream was deferred a little longer: Jimmy Butler’s 35-point triple-double, his second of the series, pushed the Heat past the Lakers, as did a missed shot by Green and a turnover by Markieff Morris. Green, who withstood a social media-driven storm of fury, bounced back with 11 points and five rebounds in the clincher.
The last Lakers championship was won in 2010, when Bryant led a seven-game effort concluding with an 83-79 score indicative of a different era of basketball. In what would be the last of his five championships with the franchise, Bryant mounted the scorer’s table to beat his chest and whoop in front of an exuberant crowd with a swirl of confetti raining down through the scene.
It was a time when the Lakers – who had been to seven Finals during the decade – considered annual title shots their birthright. The ensuing decade, with no Finals runs in between, saw the NBA’s proudest franchise profoundly humbled by losing seasons, a rotation of disappointing contracts and failed coaching hires. The architects of the Lakers’ last championship teams, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak, did not last through the fallow years.
It spoke volumes that Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso, the two youngest rotation players on the team, are also the longest-tenured Lakers remaining on the roster with just three seasons under their belts.
Even the turning point wasn’t an abrupt ramp back to contention: When James signed with the Lakers in July of 2018, it was trumpeted as a return to the highest rung of the league. But the season was derailed by injuries and unconquerable chemistry issues after trade rumors for Davis spread into the locker room. The Lakers continued a six-year drought – it led to the dramatic resignation of executive Magic Johnson, who had been one of the people who had helped lure James to Los Angeles in the first place.
James hadn’t missed the postseason in 14 years, and was bitterly disappointed by the results. But embattled General Manager Rob Pelinka promised to build him a winner: “Once he put that trust in us, we had to deliver – there was no other option.”
The Lakers decided to change their approach after trading the bulk of their youth for Davis, opting for veterans over young talent. Experience and savvy proved critical during the playoff run, especially from unexpected sources.
Rajon Rondo, a former Celtic who had struggled through a pair of regular seasons as a Laker, morphed into his playoff super-self, returning from a broken thumb to emerge as a capable back-up and co-general to James. The most surprising of these was Dwight Howard, who first left the Lakers in 2013 after one of the most disappointing campaigns in franchise history. He was re-signed as a journeyman last summer on a non-guaranteed contract with low-risk and high-reward – by the Finals, he had become the Lakers’ starting center with his energetic defense and physicality.
Presiding over the affair was Vogel, a hire who was not the Lakers’ first choice last spring as they ran a meandering coaching search. But it turned out the even-handed, upbeat New Jersey native was the perfect man to step into the hornet’s nest of high expectations and high-profile stars: His low-ego approach and dedication to study and preparation was embraced by his roster, and the Lakers quickly adopted a defense-first approach that helped them to a 52-19 record that led the Western Conference.
It was the first championship for Vogel, who had never rammed past James’ great Miami Heat teams when he led Indiana, but he now joins the ranks of Paul Westhead, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. When he took the job, he said, it was about a belief he would coach “the greatest basketball player the universe has ever seen.”
“Until you’re around him every day, you’re coaching him, you’re seeing his mind, you’re seeing his adjustments, seeing the way he leads the group,” he said. “You think you know – you don’t know.”
The organization drew neck-and-neck with the Boston Celtics as the NBA’s all-time leaders in titles with 17. Coming down from her plexiglass perch to join the team on the floor during the trophy presentation, Jeanie Buss enjoyed the revelry of the first Lakers championship under her sole stewardship since her father, Jerry Buss, died in 2013. She stood beside Pelinka, the front office executive she stood behind when he was skewered by franchise legend Magic Johnson on national airwaves. Pelinka helped shape the title-winning roster in July after swinging the trade for Davis, promising to reporters afterward: “Anything short of a championship is not success.”
The title itself was celebrated with unusual intimacy, as the Lakers had some family members with them on the court, and some waving from the upper tier of the mostly empty arena. A handful of children made snow angels in the white and gold confetti strewn across the court.
James had a lonelier night than most, FaceTiming his mother Gloria from his back on a carpet outside the locker room. But it robbed him of little satisfaction.
“It doesn’t matter where it is if you win a championship,” James said. “A bubble, Miami, Golden State – it doesn’t matter. When you get to this point, it’s one of the greatest feelings in the world for a basketball player to be able to win at the highest level.”
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