Six years after their last playoff appearance, the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans have reason to celebrate again…or do they?
While the Lakers clinched their first trip to the NBA Finals in 10 years last Saturday, the collective feeling around the internet world was that the Boston Celtics needed to come back and win the Eastern Conference Finals to rebuild a storied rivalry between the two teams that have collectively won more championships than any one team in league history.
Enter the Miami Heat.
With a three games to two lead, Miami knew that the pressure was on them to end it series soon – and led by breakout forward Bam Adebayo’s 32 points and 14 rebounds, the Heat ended the Celtics’ comeback hopes Sunday with a 125-113 victory to clinch their first trip to the Finals since – well, you guessed it – the Lebron James-led team in 2014.
This series is not only enticing but personal for many reasons. And here at The Ball Out, we like to give the people what they want so we are gonna give it to you. In our Finals preview, we’re going to break down four of the best storylines of this juicy series. To quote Lil’ Jon, “YEAH!”
- PAT RILEY VERSUS LEBRON JAMES AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS
If you’re just a casual basketball fan and have no idea why Pat Riley is a central figure in this series, allow me to break it down for you in a few simple steps:
- Riley is currently the president of the Miami Heat and is considered one of the best head coaches in the history of the game. He has also won a combined nine NBA titles (five as a head coach, two as an executive, one as an assistant and one as a player).
- Riley has won championships with the Lakers as both a player (1972) and as head coach (1982, 1985, 1987, 1988) while also winning titles with the Heat (2006, 2012, 2013).
- Depending on what you read and who you talk to, the reason the Miami Heat dynasty of the early 2010’s imploded was because of dissension between James and Riley. Both parties have denied it, but looking back at James and some of the personnel changes that other teams have made with him in mind, you would be hard pressed to believe that this wasn’t a factor in his departure.
It’s also no secret that Riley is a competitive spirit, so you know that once he saw the Lakers were going to be in the Finals, this became personal. For Riley, this is a chance to show Lebron what could have been had he stayed in Miami and it also shows this team could survive just fine without him. This also serves as a revenge of sorts against his former team which he led to glory as part of the ‘Showtime’ era of the 1980s.
For Lebron, this is a whole different battle: he takes the court against his former team, the same team that he helped lead to four consecutive Finals appearances. While the makeup is not the same (the only holdovers left from that 2014 team is head coach Erik Spoelstra and veteran Udonis Haslam), this team is just as hungry to prove they can beat the best in the game. With a nucleus of Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, Goran Dragic, Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro, this Heat squad came in as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and not only swept the Indiana Pacers, but laid the smackdown on the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks then outlasted a Celtics team with the likes of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward.
While this may not be the biggest storyline of the Finals, it is an underlying one that is worthy of discussion.
- THE EMERGENCE OF JIMMY BUTLER
The Chicago Bulls gave up on him. The Minnesota Timberwolves gave up on him. And the Philadelphia 76ers felt he wasn’t worthy of a max contract.
Jimmy Butler has every damn reason to carry a chip on his shoulder. And in these playoffs, he has proven that all three of his prior teams were wrong in letting him go. Butler, who once beat the Timberwolves’ starting lineup in a scrimmage with a third-team lineup, has averaged 20.7 points per game this postseason while shooting nearly 85 percent from the free throw line and 37 percent from three-point land. Not only is he putting up a career performance on the floor, he has encouraged the younger players on the team, like Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, to take their shots and embrace the opportunity ahead of them. Needless to say, both have delivered: Adebayo is averaging double-doubles this postseason (18.4 points and 11.5 rebounds) while Herro was an unsung hero in this series, scoring 37 points in Game 4 while averaging nearly 20 points per game during the Celtics series and almost 38 percent from three in the postseason.
Butler has always had the potential of being a team leader and in his first season in Miami, we have heard nothing about the drama that followed him at his prior stops. It seems like for the first time, Butler has let his play speak for him and the rest of the team has taken notice. If Miami continues to be a main event player in the coming years, they will have Butler to thank for that.
- THE PRICE OF GLORY
We’re about to find out if the massive package that the Los Angeles Lakers gave up for All-Star forward Anthony Davis was worth it.
Now, I know what you’re going to say: “They just got to the Finals, of course it was worth it.” And that is where you are wrong. Not because the Lakers haven’t been successful; they did win the Western Conference after all. But based on the history of the Lakers (as the only team to make the Finals in every decade since the league’s inception), success is defined by holding up the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the Finals. So if the Lakers don’t win the Finals, then this season is a failure. Full stop.
To recap, the Lakers traded away Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball and three first-round picks to New Orleans for Davis, who had become disgruntled at the team’s direction and was planning on leaving after the 2019-20 season anyway. While the Pelicans ended up fairly decent with those additions, the Lakers benefitted greatly from Davis and his presence. This postseason, Davis has averaged 28.8 points per game and has all around been the threat that the Lakers needed. Need a timely three-point shot? Davis is averaging 36 percent. Free throws? He’s averaging 81 percent. Presence in the paint? Davis has you there too, averaging 9.3 rebounds per game.
If Davis can continue that same performance for four more games, he will not only win his first championship as a player but will cement his status as a Laker fan favorite.
- LEBRON IN THE LIMELIGHT
You didn’t think this was going to end without mentioning LeBron James and why this Finals is uber important, right?
Yes, LeBron James is in his ninth NBA Finals in the last 10 years (10 overall – Cleveland, 2007), something we haven’t seen since Bill Russell in the late 1950s-early 1960’s (including EIGHT straight championships). That is damn impressive. But think about this for a second.
LeBron came to Los Angeles in the shadow of such greats as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal. In the midst of a four-year contract, there is massive pressure for James, considered one of the greatest of all time, to bring a title to the Staples Center and take his place in Laker lore. There is also bigger reason why this year, especially, is an important year for LeBron to win a title NOW.
For starters, Anthony Davis is a free agent after this season. While it is widely believed he isn’t going anywhere, Davis has been non-committal when asked about re-signing with the Lakers. And there will be plenty of teams who will make their best offers towards him; though there are realistically only a few teams who can make a compelling offer. Second, the Western Conference will be much harder to win next season. This year, you had a Golden State Warriors team without two of their best players for most of the season in Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. The Los Angeles Clippers, while they disappointed in the playoffs, were only able to field a full, healthy team for less than a third of the season. The Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers proved to be low-key dangerous opposition while the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns showed they have a young core than can play the spoiler. Depending on what the Houston Rockets do this off-season after parting ways with coach Mike D’Antoni, they are a team you can never count out.
Add to that the COVID-19 situation – no one is sure if the NBA will be playing another season in the bubble or returning to their normal home courts – and this makes James’ quest for another ring that much harder. It has been all but confirmed that the 2020-21 season will not start before Jan. 1, which will leave little time for teams to get used to each other. There is an honest chance that if the Lakers lose, they will be entering next season without Davis and LeBron having to carry the weight again by himself.
Game One of the 2020 NBA Finals will air on Wednesday, Sept. 30 at 9pm EST on ABC, with games two and three following on Friday and Sunday. Be on the lookout for The Ball Out NBA Pod later this week.