When he was on the verge of reaching the 2020 NBA finals, LeBron James offered praise to some of his Los Angeles Lakers teammates who helped bring the team to championship contention.
Rajon Rondo, the backup point guard, capably conducted the team’s offense, James said. Center Dwight Howard provided an interior prowess, he added.
“Dwight was a beast,” James said after the Lakers had the Denver Nuggets down, three games to one, in the Western Conference finals. “Dwight brought that physical presence. It was great for our ball club.”
James, facing the Miami Heat in his 10th NBA finals, is on the precipice of capturing a fourth championship. A knock against him is that he has not won more championships, despite being in a position to do so in almost every year of the 2010s.
He doesn’t have to look further than inside his own locker room to spot the roadblocks who stifled his championship efforts with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Heat. Howard and Rondo played vital roles in prematurely ending his postseasons in the Eastern Conference. They join the other current Lakers Danny Green, JaVale McGee, and Quinn Cook as those who firmly and successfully opposed James in years past.
“These are guys who played a major role that have been able to win against him and now they’re going to win together,” said Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard and the Orlando Magic to a 2008-09 Eastern Conference finals win over James and Cleveland and is now a TV analyst. “It’s a great testament to how adaptable NBA players are.”
Teaming with James can be much easier than opposing him. Green said he has a greater appreciation of James now that he is more advanced in his career. The two share a locker room again, years after Green began his career as a teammate of James in Cleveland. Before these finals, Green marveled at James’s recollection of Miami’s schemes even though the teams hadn’t played each other in months.
Eleven years ago, Howard was an offensive and defensive fulcrum for an exciting Magic team countering the favored Cavaliers. Most expected James to be coronated that postseason with his first championship after he propelled Cleveland to a 66-16 record, while earning his first Most Valuable Player Award.
“We tried to keep LeBron from scoring 50,” Howard said, following Orlando’s stunning Game 1 upset.
James collected 49 points in that 1-point loss. In the next game, he drilled a 3-point shot that gave Cleveland a 96-95 win.
“It was probably one of the greatest moments of my career up until that point,” James told reporters recently. “Just knowing the situation, we were about to go down 0-2 and we had home-court advantage. We knew how powerful that Orlando team was, playing against, actually my teammate now in Dwight. So, for me to be able to hit that shot was a huge moment for me. I was still a young kid at the time, so big-time.”
Orlando won the series in six games before falling in the NBA finals to the Lakers.
James, afterward, declined to shake hands with any of the Magic, including Howard.
Now, it’s Howard’s job to set screens to help James to score as many points as possible.
In the 2009-10 season, with James expected to again vie for a championship, Rondo helped the Boston Celtics beat James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, initiating “The Decision” and James’s departure for the Miami Heat.
James won his first title in 2011-12 against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Two years later, Green helped block him from winning a third, against the San Antonio Spurs.
Cook and McGee were members of the Golden State Warriors team that swept James and Cleveland from the finals two seasons ago.
“We seen each other on separate teams, so we know how it’s like to face each other,” Howard said. “Now being on the same team, all of us having the same killer instinct, that same mindset that when we get on the court the only thing that matters is winning.”
This Lakers team, though, may represent a height in rivals joining forces. Lakers coach Frank Vogel once piloted the Indiana Pacers against James’s Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Avery Bradley, a starting guard for the Lakers before opting out of the restart, was once a Celtic who battled James.
It’s common for former All-Stars to chase championships in the twilight of their careers. It seemed Howard (an eight-time All-Star) and Rondo (four) had both reached the ends of their careers before signing with the Lakers. James is still at his lengthy peak, while Howard and Rondo are now role players.
“The role suits him very, very well,” Van Gundy said of Howard. “Dwight was a 20-per-game scorer at one point. His strengths have always been his defense and rebounding, and that’s what they wanted from him.”
Jrue Holiday honored off-the-court work
Jrue Holiday of the New Orleans Pelicans was announced Tuesday as the winner of the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year award.
NBA players choose the winner from a field of 12 finalists. Holiday received 53 of 267 first-place votes to win over Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris (48 first-place votes), Milwaukee’s Kyle Korver (26 first-place votes), and Miami’s Udonis Haslem (20 first-place votes).
Holiday announced in July that he would donate about $5 million in salary — what he earned after the NBA season restarted — to start a social justice fund with his wife, Lauren, a former soccer player for the US Women’s National Team. The Jrue and Lauren Holiday Social Justice Impact Fund primarily targets “socioeconomics inequalities across communities in New Orleans, the Los Angeles area and Indianapolis.” The money aids Black-owned businesses in those cities and others, as well as helps historically Black colleges and universities.
The other finalists, in order of finish: Portland’s Damian Lillard, Dallas’s J.J. Barea, San Antonio’s Patty Mills, Boston’s Gordon Hayward, the Los Angeles Lakers' Jared Dudley, Indiana’s Myles Turner, Denver’s Torrey Craig, and Toronto’s Serge Ibaka.
The award is named for Jack Twyman and Maurice Stokes, both members of the Basketball Hall of Fame who were forever linked by what happened in the final game of the 1957-58 regular season, when Stokes suffered a brain injury.
Stokes was paralyzed, and Twyman supported him for the remainder of his life — even becoming his legal guardian and advocate.
Stokes died in 1970. In 2004, at Twyman’s urging, Stokes was voted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Twyman, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983, died in 2012.