Lakers’ 2020 season added up to even more than an NBA title

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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Lakers’ supporting cast can’t get them through final moments of Game 5

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — With a defender on each hip and a third one on the way, LeBron James knew what the right move was. It’s been ingrained in him: If there’s more than one man on him, he has an open teammate somewhere.

Danny Green was standing right at the top of the key. It doesn’t get more elementary than that.

“It’s one of the best shots that we could have got, I feel, in that fourth quarter,” James said. “Especially down the stretch with two guys on me, Duncan Robinson and Jimmy (Butler), and Danny had a hell of a look.

“It just didn’t go down.”

A 111-108 Game 5 loss was a humbling finish for the Lakers, who led with just 21.8 seconds left. James scored 40 of his team’s points, including 12 in the fourth quarter. But in the moment that could have clinched, he knew the best play was to pass. With the ball out of his hands, Green missed an open shot off the front of the rim, and Markieff Morris – armed with the long rebound – attempted an overly ambitious lob to a limping Anthony Davis which resulted in a turnover.

The blank looks the Lakers had after the turnover with 2.2 seconds left spoke volumes. They knew it was over – and the supporting cast hadn’t done quite enough.

James, the winner of three Finals closeout games, took the court with the aggressiveness and shooting touch required to win. But it was striking that on a night when the 35-year-old scored 40 points, the teammates besides Anthony Davis (28 points) scored the exact same amount.

Reliable hands in this playoff run shut down at the worst possible moment, with the championship in sight. Rajon Rondo was 1 for 7; Morris was 0 for 2. Kyle Kuzma, who has been the team’s third-leading scorer during the playoffs, had an uneven night going 3 for 10. None of them hit 3-pointers.

Typically the Lakers have been able to lean on their bench for some timely scoring punches. That largely dried up: Their 14 points off the bench was the exact match of Miami’s Kendrick Nunn in Game 5.

That put pressure on the Lakers’ starters, but with Dwight Howard hitting the bench for the fourth quarter, only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Green were in the game late. Caldwell-Pope made a number of game-swinging plays, including a 3-pointer with six-and-a-half minutes left that put the Lakers ahead for the first time since the first quarter.

Green put in a workmanlike eight points and made two of his five 3-point attempts. Just not the one that mattered most.

Afterward, James said there wasn’t much of a postgame message to Green or Morris, who he’s come to trust over the course of the season.

“They’re vets: I don’t think too much need to be said to them,” he said. “I believe they will be much better – and I’m not saying they even played bad tonight. Everybody in the lineup tonight that got minutes gave the effort. We just had some mental breakdowns at times, and (the Heat) make you pay for it.”

The beauty and terror of the Heat offense this season is that they’ve had a multi-pronged offensive attack. While Butler’s 35-point triple-double rises above the rest, especially during his shot-for-shot bout with James, all five of the Miami starters scored in double figures.

That was led by Duncan Robinson, the 3-point ace who scored a career playoff-high 26 points. After struggling for air in the first two games with minimal success, the 26-year-old has caught fire in the last three games and gained confidence. And it doesn’t have to be him on any given night because several Miami players can pour in points.

“This didn’t just start in the bubble,” Butler said. “We have been playing together, win, loss, draw, whatever, we’re in this thing together. And that’s what’s going to win us games. Night in and night out it could be anybody.”

For the Lakers, it’s tougher to lose when James plays scorchingly well. There might not be another game in the series when he can shoot 15 for 20, or make six 3-pointers. He also had seven assists – which should have been eight.

By the time James got to the postgame podium, he had seemingly relaxed, attempting to even himself out before Sunday’s game. And even though he played brilliantly, he left a little blame for himself too on that decisive play.

“I know he wish he can have it again – I wish I could make a better pass,” he said. “You know, but you just live with it.”

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Lakers-Heat live updates: NBA Finals Game 4

Despite a Game 3 loss, the Lakers retain control and advantages.

Bam Adebayo (neck) and Goran Dragic (foot) were ruled out for Game 3. While Dragic is unlikely to return, Adebayo is expected to play in Game 4 on Tuesday.

Despite Miami’s roster being plagued by injuries, the Heat picked up its first victory in the series behind a 40-point performance from Jimmy Butler.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green missed the mark against Miami, the two shooters combined to go 1 for 11 on Sunday.

Lakers  (2-1) vs. Heat (1-2)

When: Tuesday, 6 p.m. PST

Where: Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Florida

TV: ABC

Can’t watch the game? Follow our live updates feed below.

A Twitter List by JHWreporter

 

 

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Alexander: Despite loss, Lakers retain control and advantages

There are two ways to look at this if you’re a Laker fan.

First … well, you couldn’t have convinced yourself it was going to be a breeze, could you? Even as the Miami Heat lost two of their better players, they still had Jimmy Butler, who yelled to his teammates at a timeout Sunday night, “They’re in trouble.”

They, of course, being the Lakers, staring at the business end of a 115-102 loss in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, and particularly the show put on by Butler: 40 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists in 44:51 of playing time.

But the Lakers have been here before, and went on to win each of their three Western Conference series in five games. Against Portland and Houston, they got the loss out of the way in Game 1. Against Denver they took a 2-0 lead before flattening out in Game 3, and then went back to taking care of business.

This time the process will include a video session Monday, and odds are it won’t be fun.

“We’re gonna watch film, and a lot of guys are gonna get their (rears) chewed out,” Markieff Morris said in a Zoom interview. “And we’re gonna respond better in Game 4.”

This is yet another reminder: Each game in a series takes on its own personality. Tuesday night’s Game 4 will feature a Laker team that had its pride stung, to the point that LeBron James had seen enough and stalked off the court and toward the tunnel 10 seconds before the final buzzer sounded.

Coach Frank Vogel said it was probably because James had thought the game had already ended. Asked if it was that or frustration, James said, “Both.”

Meanwhile, a Heat team that wasn’t expected to be here anyway, and was left for dead after Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic were hurt, is very much alive and may get at least Adebayo (neck and shoulder) back for Tuesday’s Game 4.

Adebayo worked out before Sunday’s game, and Miami coach Eric Spoelstra talked of how it was agonizing to have to sit Adebayo and Goran Dragic (plantar fascia tear) Sunday but he had to be responsible for their health.

“I know how much this means to (Adebayo), and I know how much he wants to be out there,” Spoelstra said. “This is one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve had to make with the trainers and with Pat (Riley) and everybody, but it’s the most responsible thing.”

The Heat, which has already knocked off Milwaukee and Boston, climbed back into this series with Butler’s brilliance and a mixture of resilience, resolve and good old fashioned aggression.

“Game 1 and 2 we felt like they punked us a little bit,” said rookie Tyler Herro, whose 17 points Sunday night kept alive his streak of scoring in double figures in each game of these playoffs, and who mean-mugged the ABC cameras after driving past Rajon Rondo for a layup and getting fouled in the game’s final minute.

“They were being a lot more physical than we were and that’s just not how we play basketball as an organization,” Herro said. “Tonight, we wanted to come out with a lot more energy and focus and make it fearless on both ends of the floor. We did a good job of that, but it’s not going to be enough to win the series.”

This is a Miami team with Riley’s fingerprints all over it, remember. He may have made his coaching bones as the orchestrator of the Showtime Lakers, but the president of the Heat absolutely appreciates toughness and his team reflects it, as James well knows from his days there.

“We know for sure that Miami is never gonna quit, (even) if we’d won tonight,” he said. “I mean, I know how resilient that bunch is and how resilient their coaching staff is and their franchise. So I don’t ever feel like we went into it and let our guard down. And also I don’t feel like we’re concerned. We’re not concerned. We know we can play a lot better. I mean, we have another opportunity to take a commanding lead on Tuesday.”

Taking care of the ball would help. James had five of the Lakers’ 10 first-quarter turnovers, and the sloppiness – as well as Anthony Davis’ slow start while dealing with foul trouble – put L.A. in a quick hole. Even with that, they were down by just five with 2:10 to play before Miami pulled away.

As we said, the flaws are correctable. The Lakers still should win this series well before the seven-game limit, especially if their best players again play like it. And they can make that evident Tuesday night, as they did in the first three series.

“Our message as a team is, we don’t like to lose two in a row,” Kyle Kuzma said. “That’s been our goal. Not (just) for the playoffs but the entire season.”

They did have three losing streaks in this elongated season. They lost four in a row in December, back to back games in January (the second of those to Portland at Staples Center, in the first game after Kobe Bryant’s death), and three seeding games in a row last month in the bubble. And those probably shouldn’t even count, so little was at stake.

Kuzma said he likes their chances to avoid a losing streak this time. So do I, even if Miami does bring reinforcements.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Jimmy Butler tries to will Heat to victory, but it’s not enough against locked-in Lakers

Not much more you can ask from the man.

With starting point guard Goran Dragic and starting center Bam Adebayo forced to sit with injuries, Miami’s Jimmy Butler dazzled Friday, dishing, driving, drawing contact, dishing, driving, drawing more contact.

For a gutsy 44 minutes and 44 seconds of action, the 31-year-old small forward (who sprained his left ankle in Game 1) tried to will the outmanned Heat to a win in Game 2 of the NBA Finals in the bubble at Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

But even dropping 25 points (including 11 on free throws), notching a career playoff-high 13 assists and grabbing eight rebounds was far too few drops in the bucket against a Lakers squad whose own stars are plenty willful, too. Anthony Davis and LeBron James accounted for a combined 65 points on 29-for-45 shooting in Friday’s 124-114 victory that gave the Lakers a 2-0 series lead.

“Like I said at the beginning of this thing, we gotta play damn near perfect in order to beat those guys,” Butler said Friday night via Zoom. “We have yet to do it, and if we don’t do it soon, it’s not gonna be pretty.”

Butler’s 14 points and five assists in the second half helped the Heat cut the Lakers’ 18-point lead down to nine points a couple of times after halftime, when Miami shot 17 for 19 from the free-throw line.

They may have made the Lakers work for the win, but the Heat didn’t really make them sweat.

Not yet.

To hear Butler tell it, though, the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed, banged-up though the Heat might be, is right there.

“We gotta secure the ball, we gotta get back, stop them from dunking and getting layups and free throws,” said Butler, for whom Friday’s offensive rebounding disparity (16-6) told the story. “If we do that, I think we might be a’ight … if we get more shots up and they get a little bit less, I think we’re in a better position.

“I like what we’ve been doing, we just gotta play harder. … We really gotta lock into what we’re supposed to be doing. If we do that, we’re gonna turn this thing around.”

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Butler’s belief goes a long way.

“I love Jimmy,” said Spoelstra of the the five-time All-Star who’s known for his 4 a.m. workout sessions and, probably not coincidentally, for his high-end coffee hustle in the bubble.

“He is a supreme competitor. You can’t define him by any analytic or typical viewpoint of how to play the game of basketball because he’s going to compete and he’s going to find different ways to compete to put yourself, your team in a position to win.”

“Yeah,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel confirmed, “this team has a lot of fight.”

Neither Butler nor Udonis Haslem, whose R-rated pep talk on the sideline helped turn up the Heat in the second half, is likely to let the Lakers forget it.

“We’re never giving up, we’re gonna fight,” Butler said. “It’s not over. We’re just down 0-2, gotta do something special. We’re capable of it.”

 

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