The moment has come. After the arguably worst decade in franchise history, the Los Angeles Lakers are back in the NBA Finals to conclude one of the most unprecedented seasons the game has ever witnessed.
And that seems only fitting; L.A. faced adversity even before the season started with a tumultuous trip to China. Then there was Kobe Bryant’s tragic death and the turmoil caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) and racial injustice.
It has been a rollercoaster, just like the last 10 years were for the Lakers organization. But they are four wins away from putting an end to the franchise’s suffering, at least in basketball terms.
Those victories will not come easy, though. Their opponent, the Miami Heat, have already defeated this year’s prime title favorites in the Milwaukee Bucks and one of the most talented NBA teams in the Boston Celtics on their way to the Finals.
The day after Lakers players insisted the “job is not done” following the closeout victory over the Denver Nuggets, Miami requested not to be drowned in confetti when celebrating their Eastern Conference title. The Heat are just as determined to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Florida.
The Heat roster is a dangerous mix of youth, experience and talent, with the addition of championship pedigree in head coach Erik Spoelstra and Andre Iguodala, who is in his sixth consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
And LeBron James knows well that winning runs in the Heat franchise’s blood. The three-time NBA champion won the first two rings of his career in Miami and under head coach Erik Spoelstra, no less.
The two know each other inside out. To whose benefit that knowledge will serve in the Finals is one of the main mysteries of the series.
The Lakers could stick to a bigger lineup in Game 1, possibly leaving Dwight Howard among the starters. Davis could use the 34-year-old center’s help in the paint to stop the formidable Bam Adebayo.
Adebayo is averaging 18.5 points and 11.4 rebounds in the playoffs, emerging as one of the Heat’s leaders alongside Jimmy Butler.
Staying focused on defense will be the key to success for the Lakers. The Heat thrive at passing, cutting, and off-ball movement — and like to go to the charity line often. They are averaging 27.6 free-throw attempts, second-most in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, despite an average shooting efficiency from behind the line (35.7% this postseason), Miami’s guards Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, and their playmaker Goran Dragic have shown they can also hurt their opponents from downtown when necessary.
Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, as well as Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso off the bench, will need to be on top of their game to successfully cover the restless Heat backcourt.
But Lakers guards have proven they can inflict damage with their 3-point shooting themselves. Against Denver, Rondo shot 45.5% for three and Caldwell-Pope converted 44% of his 3-point attempts. Continuing that trend could be a game-changer for L.A.
And then there is the mouthwatering duel between James and Butler.
Miami turned out to be a perfect match for the Heat forward and his desire to win. Butler has excelled in the role of the team leader, averaging 20.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 4.5 assists in the playoffs and often taking the responsibility on his shoulder to make key plays in crunch time.
But there is a piece of bad news for Butler. “I’ve been as locked in as I’ve ever been in my career,” James said ahead of Game 1.
Wary of the Los Angeles franchise’s struggles, the Lakers All-Star has vowed to restore its prominence this year. And he seems set on that goal, registering 26.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 8.9 assists per game on the way to the NBA Finals.
James certainly has fond memories of his time in Miami. But he is a Laker now, tasked with bringing glory days back to L.A.
And he is four wins away from fulfilling his promise. Expect James to come out determined like never before from the second the ball is up in Game 1.
Heat (0-0) vs. Lakers (0-0)
6:00 p.m. PT, Sep. 30, 2020
ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Orlando, Florida
Radio: 710 AM ESPN L.A.
Projected Lakers starting lineup:
PG: LeBron James
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
SF: Danny Green
PF: Anthony Davis
C: Dwight Howard
Key Reserves: Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo, Markieff Morris
Projected Heat starting lineup:
PG: Goran Dragic
SG: Duncan Robinson
SF: Jimmy Butler
PF: Jae Crowder
C: Bam Adebayo
Key Reserves: Tyler Herro, Andre Igoudala, Kelly Olynyk, Derrick Jones Jr.
Have you subscribed to our YouTube channel? It’s the best way to watch player interviews, exclusive coverage from events, participate in live shows, and more!