The Los Angeles Lakers made a bet at the very beginning of the longest, rockiest season in NBA history that any team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis could win a championship.
They had no idea how it would happen, and there was no way for them to predict what did happen. There would be a geopolitical incident, a devastating pandemic and a legend’s shattering death. Hundreds of the best athletes on earth would seal themselves in a bubble. The Lakers would find themselves at the center of every crisis, tragedy and unimaginable occurrence along the way.
The only unsurprising development of this season was how it ended.
The Los Angeles Lakers are champions again after beating the Miami Heat, 106-93, in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday to clinch their 4-2 series win and celebrate a title that triggers their exit from the league’s bubble three months after they arrived in Walt Disney World.
James and Davis played like people who didn’t want to spend another night in a hotel. Two days after Jimmy Butler and Miami extended their stay, they seized control of Game 6 and turned a coronation into a blowout.
The Lakers saved their finest for the last game of the season. They attacked the rim. They owned the paint. They rained fire on offense and extinguished the Heat on defense. They took a demoralizing 30-point lead in the first half and spent the rest of the night counting down the seconds until confetti. James, the Most Valuable Player of the Finals, shined with a triple-double of 28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists and began the festivities during the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ blowout.
James’s fourth championship with a third team cements his place in NBA history and inches him closer to Michael Jordan in the perpetual basketball debate over the greatest player of all time. His longevity might give him the edge. This was James’s ninth appearance in the last 10 Finals, and his brilliance was a reminder that he’s still the best in the world at the age of 35. Never has an NBA player been so dominant so deep into his career.
The title was the first in a decade and the 17th in total for the Lakers, tied for the most of any team with the Boston Celtics, their bitter rival for basketball supremacy.
“We just want our respect,” James said, “and I want my damn respect, too.”
The end of the playoffs also was a triumph for the NBA itself. The crowning of the Lakers marked the successful culmination of the league’s bubble experiment, which was a public health accomplishment as much as it was an economic relief. As the NFL and Major League Baseball struggled to contain outbreaks of the coronavirus, the NBA reported zero cases on its campus.
The NBA was the first American professional sports league to shut down in March, and nobody knew in the uncertainty of the pandemic’s early days whether the season would resume. Even as 22 teams moved to Disney World for the July restart, nobody knew if they would finish.
The extraordinary circumstances were inconceivable when this season began. The team drenched in champagne wasn’t.
A partnership with James is what they had in mind when they traded for Davis last year. It was a risky proposition, considering he would cost three players and three draft picks, one of the most expensive superstar acquisitions in the league’s history. James won championships with Dwyane Wade in Miami and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, but he had never been complemented by a big man in his prime like Davis.
The Lakers were desperate to make a splash. They had missed the playoffs for the last six years, including last season, even after James moved to Los Angeles and took his talents to the local basketball team.
They were no longer a sports franchise so much as they were a Shakespearean drama. The organizational tumult included Lakers owner Jeanie Buss seizing control of the team by ousting her brother and hiring Magic Johnson to run basketball operations. The dysfunction peaked on a surreal night in April 2019 with Johnson quitting suddenly.
The Lakers lured James in the summer of 2018 and traded for Davis in the summer of 2019, but found themselves at the center of an international incident before they took the court together. The Lakers were in China for preseason games last October as Beijing unleashed fury in response to a tweet supporting Hong Kong’s protesters. James blasted Daryl Morey as “misinformed” and was pilloried for his comments. It would take one full year and hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for the NBA to return to Chinese television.
When the season started, the Lakers were better than anyone expected. They cruised into title contention and found themselves atop the Western Conference on Jan. 26.
That was the day a helicopter carrying Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his teenage daughter Gianna crashed in the foggy hills of Southern California and killed all nine people aboard. The shocking tragedy plunged the world, the NBA and the city of Los Angeles into an intense period of mourning.
The Lakers played through grief and seemed to be peaking when the season abruptly stopped on March 11. As people began to grasp the extraordinary risks of mass indoor gatherings, James rejected the idea of playing in empty arenas. He also scoffed at living in isolation for months.
He would end up in the NBA’s bubble without fans.
The players were tested daily, required to wear masks and governed by a tome of health and safety protocols. The league’s fears of a deadly pathogen quickly faded as the NBA seemed to be insulated from the outside world.
Then the bubble popped. In the wake of the police shooting of a Black man named Jacob Blake, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for a playoff game. Their protest started a work stoppage that lasted three days in August. Players returned after striking a deal that included a pledge from team owners to convert NBA arenas into voting sites for November’s elections.
The games went on. The Lakers kept winning.
After struggling to adjust to a sterile environment, they came alive for the playoffs, dispatching the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets in five games each to earn a Finals matchup against James’s former team.
Even that drama wasn’t enough to rescue the league’s sinking television ratings. With an overcrowded pandemic sports calendar, the NBA playoffs faced more competition than ever. Behind the massive drop was a confluence of factors: the rescheduling of a June event for October, the last month of a manic election, the hospitalization of President Trump, the league’s political activism and the acceleration of cord-cutting.
What happens next remains uncertain. As the league and the players’ union negotiate the details of next season, which likely won’t begin until January at the earliest, the financial reality is that the NBA needs paying fans as soon as possible. In a sign of the fiscal crunch around the league, the Lakers applied for a loan from the federal government’s coronavirus relief program, later returning the $4.6 million in response to a public uproar.
They had no such problems on the court.
The Lakers took a 2-0 lead over the relentless but injured Heat in the Finals. A pair of sublime performances from Butler in Games 3 and 5 pushed them, but the Lakers grabbed a commanding lead in Game 6 and never looked back for a simple reason: They had James and Davis.
Write to Ben Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org
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