ORLANDO — This ambitious undertaking in the midst of a worldwide health crisis, requiring approximately 374 players, coaches, team staff, league officials, arena employees and media members to sequester themselves for more than three months came to a successful and healthy conclusion Sunday evening.
The Los Angeles Lakers ended the NBA’s impressive and improbable postseason run at Walt Disney World with a drubbing of the Miami Heat, 106-93, for their 17th NBA championship to tie the Boston Celtics for most all-time, and first since edging the Celtics 10 years ago.
MVP LeBron James, who used this stage to prove he is still the best player on the planet, accomplished yet another career goal, recording his 11th career triple-double in the NBA Finals with 28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists to bring a third different team a title it had been so desperate for.
Whether this brings James closer to the mantle of greatest player of all time remains to be seen, but what was not up for debate was James' passion and determination to conclude this series after Miami had willed its way to sixth game.
James helped the Lakers exert their dominance over the Heat and end any doubts about their prowess with a stellar first-half effort that laid the foundation for an insurmountable 28-point halftime lead at AdventHealth Arena, as this bizarre and extraordinary NBA season reached its mid-October conclusion.
Teamed with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, James, who was named MVP of the NBA Finals for the fourth time in his career, was abetted in this championship run in LA by Anthony Davis and former Celtic Rajon Rondo, who, though heartbroken after that loss to LA in the NBA Finals a decade ago, earned his second ring with a 19-point effort off the bench for the Lakers on 8-for-11 shooting, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range.
Davis had 19 points as well and added 15 rebounds, 3 assists and a pair of blocked shots.
Rondo said the biggest difference between now and 2008 was that his son, Rajon Jr., 8, was able to see dad go through a championship journey, even asking him when they will be fitted for championship rings.
“This one by far was the hardest one,” he said, when asked to compare the title he won with the Lakers with with title he won in 2008 with the Celtics. “Being without your family is tough. It was an experience, once in a lifetime hopefully. I wouldn’t trade it for nothing.”
James, who will likely draw comparisons to Michael Jordan for the rest of his life, has worked feverishly to establish his own aura and legacy. Jordan went 6-0 in NBA Finals. James is now 4-6, but he remains the game’s best player at an age where most NBA players are just trying to make a roster.
Through his longevity, passion and overall dominance, James has displayed he is indeed comparable to Jordan.
“The way I was taught to play the game when I first picked up a basketball at 8 years old, it’s OK to play that way and be able to win,” he said. “No matter how many people tell you you should shoot more, maybe do this more, maybe be like him more. It let me know, the way I play basketball is the right way because you do see results.”
The Lakers entered the bubble as the prohibitive favorites to reach the Finals after claiming the best record in the Western Conference. And they were able to mostly play to their potential as title rivals such as the Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets and the Celtics slipped on their quest to the final series.
‘“The way I was taught to play the game when I first picked up a basketball at 8 years old, it’s OK to play that way and be able to win. ...; No matter how many people tell you you should shoot more, maybe do this more, maybe be like him more. It let me know, the way I play basketball is the right way because you do see results.”’
The Heat, despite being the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, knocked off the Bucks and Celtics to get here. But the Lakers were the ones obsessed with a return to glory.
“The Lakers want their respect, [coach] Frank Vogel and I want my damn respect, too,” James said.
The Lakers had tried several times for the past decade to rebuild a title-contending team. First it was Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to join the late great Kobe Bryant and then the Lakers signed James two years ago and they failed to make the playoffs last season. General manager Rob Pelinka added a superstar in Davis along with several other pieces to give the Lakers a legitimate shot at reaching their championship goal.
It’s been a tumultuous season for the Lakers and the NBA. Bryant and his daughter Gianna along with seven others died in a tragic helicopter crash in January and then the pandemic shut down the NBA season on March 11.
The Lakers, along with 21 other teams, gathered themselves and began working out in June in preparation for this unprecedented journey in Orlando. While other teams experienced drama, multiple COVID cases and upheaval, the Lakers stayed together, going 16-5 in their playoff run and winning the title under perhaps the most difficult circumstances possible.
The Lakers played Sunday with a fierceness not seen so far in the NBA Bubble. They have spent the past three months playing in spurts, going through phases, turning it on and then somehow becoming complacent and losing their edge.
They should have probably finished the Heat in five games, and they came away from that loss angry. James was criticized for making the right basketball play because it didn’t involve him trying to score. Danny Green was lambasted for missing an open 3-pointer that could have put the Lakers ahead by 2 points in the final second.
“I got so many (negative social media] messages I can’t even hit the ‘delete all’ button on all of them,” Green said. "There’s so many that I don’t even read then. [My fiancée] doesn’t get as many and she doesn’t have as many followers so she can see more of it. I had to ask her [Saturday] ‘Are you getting death threats?’ And she was like ‘Yeah. And you are, too.’ I probably should be a little more paranoid or more safe about things.
“It’s a basketball game. I hope people aren’t that emotional. I hope they take voting that seriously.”
Green turned into a sentimental favorite in Game 6 and after he hit his first 3-pointer, 5 minutes 10 seconds into the game, the Lakers' bench erupted.
All those complementary Lakers players who faltered in Game 5, wound up delivering in Game 6. Rondo, criticized throughout his career for a lack of an outside shot, drained a 25-footer for a 10-point lead early in the second period and it became apparent it was the Lakers' night.
The Miami team that unseated Milwaukee and outworked the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, a series that Celtics' fans will lament for years, had disappeared, replaced by a group of exhausted and overwhelmed also-rans. After an inspiring run, where coach Erik Spoelstra played his primary players, especially Jimmy Butler, extended minutes to reach this point, left the Heat fried.
They missed open layups, uncontested 3-pointers and free throws. They didn’t play with the energy of the first five games because they didn’t have any left. Butler limped away from his interview sessions after his 35-point effort in Game 5 and looked just as sluggish 48 hours later. Spoelstra even threw out Goran Dragic, who missed the first four games of the Finals with a torn plantar fascia, but he was unable to provide a spark.
Miami wasn’t this bad. The Heat just had nothing left to offer. And the Lakers were tired of the bubble, tired of hearing doubts about whether they were truly the best team in the NBA, and tired of the year-long journey quest for that long-awaited championship.