NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers prove a point after winning 17th Championship
LA Lakers ― a team spearheaded by the second-best player, and the second-best defensive player over the regular season, coached by the fifth-best man manager in the league; and pieced together by the seventh-best GM ― were crowned the best team in the NBA on Monday.
The Los Angeles Lakers ― a team spearheaded by LeBron James, the second-best player over the regular season, and Anthony Davis, the second-best defensive player in the league; coached by Frank Vogel, the fifth-best man-manager in the league; and pieced together by Rob Pelinka, the seventh-best General Manager ― were crowned the best team in the NBA on Monday.
Over 100 days after they first landed in Orlando to play in an unprecedented bubble environment, and 42 days after they voted for the season to be prematurely terminated over the gruesome shooting of Jacob Blake, the Lakers wrapped up their 17th Championship with an eye looking skywards towards franchise legend Kobe Bryant.
When the end came, LeBron shared a long hug with team owner Jeannie Buss, as both appeared to thank each other for the faith they reposed in the other person. Davis ― the 6’10” giant who was acquired by LA after trading away Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and three first-round picks in a move thought of by many as the Lakers giving up too much for one man ― wept quietly into a towel as the rest of his teammates danced in a huddle on the court. Dwight Howard ― a man who began this season as a role player on a non-guaranteed contract after having started his career in the NBA as the top draft pick with expectations of becoming a franchise cornerstone ― cradled the Larry O'Brien trophy like his firstborn.
“(When I was holding the trophy) I was just thinking, ‘this is the moment that I’ve been dreaming about every day since I came back to this team’. Holding up the trophy, it really still hasn’t hit me yet that we won,” said Howard. “I don’t even think I am going to sleep. It’s going to be amazing, just to hear that word ‘champion’. I know a couple of years ago I said I am a champion and people laughed.”
Everyone had a point to prove.
The Lakers entered the season not having made even the Playoffs for six years in a row and with city rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers, appearing like a better fit to win the title. They ended the season equalling Boston Celtics with 17th NBA titles.
Meanwhile, franchise superstar LeBron’s era with the mighty Lakers started with jokes about them assembling a ‘meme team’.
“We just want our respect. Rob (Pelinka) wants his respect. Coach Vogel wants his respect. This organisation wants their respect. Laker Nation wants their respect. And I want my damn respect, too,” LeBron said during the trophy presentation after he was handed the NBA Finals MVP trophy. LeBron was ‘pissed off’ after finishing second in the regular season MVP race, where he got just 16 first-place votes.
“It pissed me off. That's my true answer,” LeBron had said during the Western Conference Finals. “It pissed me off because out of 101 votes, I got 16 first-place votes. I’m not saying that the winner wasn’t deserving of the MVP. But that pissed me off. And I’ve finished second a lot in my career, either in the championship, and now four times as an MVP.”
History tells us that LeBron teams are vulnerable to finishing second in the NBA Finals. Before this title, LeBron was 3-6 in the NBA Finals with two different teams, enduring 0-4 sweeps at the hands of San Antonio Spurs in 2007 and by the Golden State Warriors in 2018.
During his two stints with the Cavaliers, he was never part of a team as overwhelmingly favoured as these Lakers were over the Miami Heat.
“Personally, thinking that I have something to prove fuels me,” said LeBron. “It fuelled me over this last year and a half since the injury. It fuelled me because no matter what I’ve done in my career to this point, there’s still little rumblings of doubt or comparing me to the history of the game and ‘has he done this, has he done that’. So having that in my mind, saying to myself, why not still have something to prove, I think it fuels me.”
There was plenty of fuel for the Lakers to spark off a remarkable Game 6 after they were dragged back from the brink of their 17th title two days ago.
Lakers’ back-up point guard Rajon Rondo, who has been a title-winner with the Boston Celtics before, spent some quiet time sitting on the court after the game was done on Monday surrounded by confetti and his son.
“I definitely feel like I let him down (in Game 5). He was pretty pissed that we didn’t finish the job two nights ago, and I didn’t sleep well that night. He didn’t sleep well,” said Rondo.
Vogel, who’d also said after the third game that he struggled to sleep at all, was asked to sum up what he was feeling after they let Game 5 slip out of their grasp. “Misery,” he said.
In Game 6, misery was the soundtrack for Miami Heat as they trailed by 36 points at one stage with superstar Jimmy Butler having a rare off day in the Finals by his standards.
After Bryant’s untimely demise earlier this year in an airplane crash, the Lakers have repeatedly said they wanted to win this one for the franchise icon.
The championship was an emotional moment for Pelinka ― one of Bryant’s best friends and his longtime agent ― who took over as GM of the team in 2017.
“There would be times in my hotel room here in the bubble where in the middle of the night, I would hear Kobe’s voice: ‘Stay the course. Finish the task.’
“When I took the job, I remember he said, ‘Hey, I know what you did for me for 20 years. I’ll give you two-three years, you’ll fix this. You’ll get the Lakers back on top.’ I guess you were right, man,” Pelinka said as he looked skywards.
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It started in 1946 with 11 teams and 160 players. The shot clock was nearly a decade away, the 3-point line was a couple generations away. Buildings were smaller. So were the players. The NBA, 75 years ago, was different in almost every imaginable way.