LeBron James has many things on his mind, but right now his focus is on helping his Los Angeles Lakers team win a championship in the year it lost its most beloved former player Kobe Bryant.
Win this title and the Lakers equal the Boston Celtics’ record 17 NBA rings.
Win this title and James secures his fourth NBA ring with his third team.
Win this title and James cements his legacy as one of the NBA’s greatest.
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“We’ve got bigger fish to fry. We understand there’s a bigger goal,” said James after the Lakers secured the franchise’s 32nd trip to the NBA Finals.
“We’re going to enjoy it tonight, as we should, because this is not promised every year,” added James, after the Lakers secured the Western Conference Title with a 4-1 series win over the Denver Nuggets.
“We can’t take this for granted, because this doesn’t happen every year to anybody.”
For a man who has made the Finals in nine of the past 10 seasons, and in 10 of the last 13, you’d forgive James for taking it for granted.
As it is, he seems hungrier than ever.
It’s 10 years since the storied LA franchise has made it to the NBA Finals – the longest stretch of time the Lakers haven’t reached the championship series since 1980.
When Bryant retired in 2016, the Lakers finished that season with a record of 17-65 – the worst in franchise history.
Having not even made the NBA Playoffs since 2013, the speed with which James’ performances and leadership has returned the franchise to winning ways is a testament to his determination and talent. James joined the Lakers on a four-year, $154 million contract in July 2018.
The 35-year-old James has four triple-doubles in the Playoffs this year, averaging 26.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists.
“When you just step back and look and marvel at what LeBron is doing at this stage of his career, how he continues to find ways to improve and get better, and take whatever team he’s on to new heights, that defines greatness,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone as he paid tribute to James after Game Five.
A special mention should go to James’ wingman Anthony Davis.
When the Lakers traded for Davis, many thought the LA team had given up too much to the New Orleans Pelicans for the power forward after they sent Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round draft picks the other way.
It now looks like a masterstroke.
Davis was hugely important throughout the regular season and the Lakers’ playoff run.
His buzzer beater in Game Two against the Nuggets took the Lakers lead to 2-0. The game was won 105-103, but it is the type of loss that arguably leaves a larger psychological scar on the loser than the game itself.
LeBron and pressure
The Finals mark the end of a long and tumultuous season for the NBA, and especially for the Lakers franchise.
During preseason, the franchise was in China when it was caught in the middle of a political storm between the league and China after Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.
In January, the death of Bryant rocked the franchise which the NBA great had represented for the entirety of his career.
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Then came the Covid-19 pandemic and the suspension of the league for four months in March.
In May, the killing of George Floyd sent shockwaves across the US and the world, sparking protests on the streets and on the court which are still going today.
The NBA then resumed the season at the end of July inside a Bubble at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida.
James acknowledged this after Game Five: “It’s been a crazy obstacle course for our franchise.”
And the crazy obstacle course isn’t done yet.
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If the Finals go to seven games, the NBA season will end just 10 days short of the year anniversary of its commencement.
The marathon season and James’ ability to stay on top of himself and his teammates is a testament to his mental strength.
He led the Lakers to continued success when the franchise, its fans and the league was mourning Bryant.
He led his team to victories while many people took to the streets to protest police brutality against Black people, all the while being one of the leading voices in the league around the issue of Black Lives Matter.
His team even voted to end the season prematurely after the shooting of Jacob Blake, such was their commitment to the idea of social justice.
Ultimately they continued.
Having dominated the East with Cleveland and Miami, many said James wasn’t a “great” until he could do the same in the West.
Now he has proven them wrong, by securing the top seed in the West and now reaching the Finals with the Lakers too.
Eight months after Bryant’s death, he is expected to deliver a title now more than ever as the Lakers honor the memory and legacy of the team’s former star.
Ironically, the Lakers will face the team James won his first two titles with: the Miami Heat, a team of underdogs who have been underestimated for the entire season and playoffs.
The Heat came into the playoffs as the fifth seed in the East. They have lost only three games out of 15 – the same as the Lakers – on their way to the Finals, seeing off the MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and his No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks in five games in the second round.
Nobody expected the Heat to be there, and here they are.
The team features a seemingly perfect mixture of NBA veterans and exciting young talent.
Perennial misfit Jimmy Butler – who is on his fourth team in the past four years – leads the team, and is complimented by veterans Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder.
Joining them in the starting lineup is 23-year old 2020 All-Star Bam Adebayo and 26-year old Duncan Robinson, a player who in 2014 sought out sports media experience during college as he didn’t think he’d make it as a pro.
Three years later, he holds the Heat’s franchise record for the most successful three-point shots in a single season and is in the NBA Finals.
Two other bench players the Lakers need to keep an eye on are veteran Andre Iguodala, a three-time NBA champion with the Golden State Warriors, and rookie Tyler Herro, a 20-year old player who, after dropping 37 points on the Boston Celtics from the bench in Game Four, was described by his coach Erik Spoelstra as possessing “fearlessness that is uncommon.”
This Miami Heat team has been underrated, underestimated and undervalued for the entire season.
The pressure is on the Lakers and James.
But we know how he copes with pressure.