Many predicted the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets will meet in the 2021 NBA Finals following the James Harden trade, a situation bearing a striking resemblance to last year’s projections.
Fans at large expected the Lakers and L.A. Clippers to not only decide the Western Conference Finals but the champion as well after the former signed Anthony Davis and the latter lured in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in 2019.
The Clippers even carried the favorites mantle for the majority of the regular season, the narrative which ended with a spectacular collapse against the Denver Nuggets in the second-round playoff series. L.A. famously squandered a 3-1 lead with chemistry issues in the locker room facilitating the fallout.
Montrezl Harrell saw the unraveling of the Clippers firsthand, playing on the team last season and facing the pressure that comes with the label of being “the ones to beat.” The very same label is now being attached to Brooklyn — particularly in the aftermath of Davis facing a several-weeks long layoff due to calf and Achilles injuries.
But Harrell refused to say whether that perception would again play into the Lakers’ hands. “Honestly, I don’t know and I don’t really care,” he said ahead of the Thursday showdown with the Nets at Staples Center.
Harrell added the Lakers approached the game as they would any other, focusing on unleashing the wealth of potential of their own roster. “We’re not circling that game or putting any extra emphasis on that game. It’s just like any other game,” he said.
“We’re taking it one game at a time, we’re still learning, still growing, and still building with one another. We’re going to have to do it to a higher extent with losing one of our big pieces.”
The Lakers’ goal in the offseason was to add depth to the roster and prepare themselves for the possibility of key players potentially missing a slate of games during the hectic 2020-21 campaign.
The strategy brought Harrell in and his performances over the last weeks — just like his comments — show he’s aware of the expectations that came with the move. The forward has been averaging 14.4 points and shooting 71% from the field in February, stepping up amid Davis’ health issues.
James: Lakers need collective effort to cope with Davis’ absence
In an attempt to take some pressure off his teammates, James said nobody expected anyone on the roster to singlehandedly replace Davis, one of the best players in the league. Instead, the four-time NBA champion emphasized the need for a collective effort in filling the 27-year-forward’s shoes.
“Just next man up and we’re not expecting one person to try to pick up A.D.’s productivity,” James said. “Nobody is going to be able to do that because he brings too much to the table, but we all can collectively do more.”
This mindset proved to be a winning plan for L.A. last season. The Lakers’ role players collectively emerged as the team’s third star in the postseason, stepping up interchangeably from one night to another.
That separated them from others and led to the franchise’s 17th title in the end.
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