September 30th (pre-Finals Thoughts)
I have too many thoughts to keep the other running diary veering any further into epic length, so here we go with a separate version for the Finals. Heat vs. Lakers. Not what we expected, but what we deserve in this wild year. A 5th seed making the championship round is novel in the 21st century. Miami is no ordinary 5th seed, though, given that the NBA Playoffs were contested inside a bubble in which nobody had home court advantage. Neutral sites even the playing field and the Heat have simply proven the better team time and again for the past six weeks. Are they better than the Lakers? I think it would seem obvious that their team is superior on paper. They fit the modern mold, with a roster full of shooters and versatile two-way players, only they lack a player considered among the very best in the world. Jimmy Butler is their anchor, though he would say Bam Adebayo has earned that label. Both are All-Stars, but neither are considered on the same level as Anthony Davis or LeBron, who are two of the five best players in the league. It’s going to be interesting. Does star power win out over team basketball?
The Lakers, beyond their two stars, do not scare anyone. Who is their third best player? Kyle Kuzma? The ageless wonder, Rajon Rondo? It could get dicey for them when they need a third guy to step up and save a game. Miami is loaded with guys who can play that role. Andre Iguadala reminded us in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals that they have players down to their ninth or tenth man who can win them a huge playoff game. The Lakers did not get tested in the Western Conference bracket. They got a huge pass when the Clippers choked away their 3-1 lead over the Nuggets. Miami is far more likely to push their buttons and get them out of their comfort zone. I have full confidence in LeBron, but if Davis disappears for stretches, who steps up in his place? I think Miami is a match-up nightmare for the Lakers and that they will force someone other than James or Davis into the spotlight in this series.
Mostly, I’m intrigued by the legacy conversations. That’s my thing in sports. The Xs and Os…I’ll listen to that stuff and can carry on a conversation about it to a point, but when you start talking about player legacy, that’s the topic that engages me most. LeBron could come out of this series with his fourth title. I told my buddy, Jeff, recently that a fourth ring for the King would make me start listening to the “he’s surpassed Jordan” arguments that I’ve never seen fit to even bother with to date. Four titles on three different teams, 9/10 NBA Finals (and 10 total and counting), on pace for all-time leading scorer…the numbers are starting to add up, but the fourth ring needs to happen NOW. AD starts to become a relevant all-time level player if he gets a ring too. Danny Green begins to look great as a top-tier role player (three titles on three different teams if they win, a starter for each of them). Over on the Heat side, Butler would re-write the narrative on his career, especially if he earned NBA Finals MVP.
I’m picking the Lakers in six. It’s too hard to bet against LeBron. I think AD will dominate, and even though I do not love the Laker role players, there is a lot of Finals experience among them. Finals experience tends to matter when one team has it and the other does not; check the history books.
October 1st (post-Game 1 Thoughts)
Wow. Writing about sports / entertainment, it is easy to get caught up in the moment and levy conclusions way too hyperbolic to hold up to time’s test, but after Game 1, is it too late to change my pick to a Lakers sweep or LA in 5?
Granted, everything that could have gone right for the Lakers did and most of what could have gone wrong for the Heat did. One of my favorite narratives in these Finals is the coaching history between Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, who coached LeBron during his Heatles run, and LA’s Frank Vogel, who never could beat Spoelstra. Coach Spo is among the game’s best at adapting, but with the Heat’s injuries, I’m not sure it will matter. If anyone is up to the task, Spo is among the chosen few. Still, if Bam is out, then the advantage that AD already has gets magnified to the power of 10, rendering this series, to quote a friend I used to talk basketball with in shop class back in the day who I ran into a parking lot yesterday, “The varsity against the junior varsity.”
Game 1 reminded me equal parts of Magic-Lakers in the ’09 Finals and LeBron’s Cavs against the Warriors in the ’15 Finals. Like the Magic in ’09, the Heat just were not prepared for the moment. Like I said in my pre-game thoughts, Finals experience matters and the Heat’s best players don’t have any of it. The Bam injury turned this into a comparable 2015 scenario. The Magic in ’09 came back and stimulated as enthralling a 5-game series as there’s perhaps ever been, but the Heat are going to be outgunned like LeBron was in ’15 when Kyrie Irving went down injured in Game 1. Down Goran Dragic too – maybe the most underrated player in the 2020 Playoffs – the Heat are chum in the water for LeBron and his school of sharks. The King knows when it is time to pounce on a golden opportunity.
October 2nd (pre-Game 2 Thoughts)
It’s not over until it’s over, though. LeBron’s Cavs took the Warriors to a six game series in 2015. The Heat still have shooters galore and I would put money down that the Lakers will be unable to sustain their 3-pointer hot streak. Get AD in foul trouble, fluster LeBron a little bit and make him bring back memories of 2011, when Dirk and a band of misfit toys stole a title from the Heat, get the young sharp shooters settled into the series, and hope that Jimmy Butler plays out of his mind…who knows?
The best we can probably hope for as basketball fans without a specific rooting interest is that the Heat find a way to steal one of these next two games so that Bam can get back on the court. Mentally, I’m preparing myself to start having those LeBron conversations. I wonder if Davis would earn Finals MVP over LeBron?
October 3rd (post-Game 2 Thoughts)
A mere glance at the box score would not do justice the effort with which Miami played last night. The Heat were totally overmatched. Anthony Davis missed one shot through the first 30-minutes of game time. LeBron was quietly dominant throughout. The pair of Lakers stars was playing on a level above everyone else on the court, honestly. Nevertheless, the Heat never let the game get away from them. Los Angeles built a double digit lead, reflecting the reality that they are 10-14 points better, if you will, on any night that the Lakers are full strength and the Heat are down two of their three best players, but Miami ensured that LA never got the chance to coast, working their tails off to stay somewhere between 9-16 points down. That effort cannot be understated. It was the closest double digit win you’ll ever see.
Jimmy Butler echoed his pre-game bravado with relentless play during the game, Kelly Olynyk had one of his classic “I’m sneaky good and I’ll prove it” nights, and the rest of the team followed their lead en route to a memorable losing performance; they earned a lot of respect from me in the process. Even if this ends up being a sweep, I’ll remember the Heat for their grit.
I asked my buddy, Jeff, last night during the game’s waning moments, “Would LeBron have to get to six rings before you’d say he can surpass Jordan?” Certainly, Game 2 in the big picture seemed to do nothing but up the volume on the “What is LeBron’s legacy once he gets to four rings” conversation. The King is on pace to end up the league’s all-time leading scorer. He’s dominated a decade and counting. Four rings ties him with Shaq. The only players with more titles that are also in the G.O.A.T. discussion are Bill Russell, Kareem, Kobe, Magic, and MJ. Our conclusion? If James gets to five rings and breaks the scoring record among his other longevity-laced statistical accolades, then we would greatly consider giving him the nod for #1 all-time. At four rings, I’m ready to start taking MJ vs. LeBron more seriously. Four years ago, that was a laughable comparison. LBJ is two wins away from further shifting his narrative. No matter where you stand, it behooves us all to appreciate the history we’re witnessing.
October 5th (post-Game 3 Thoughts)
It’s easy to get caught in the big picture and not appreciate the moment. I think most of us still believe that this series is basically over and I wouldn’t be shocked if the ratings for Game 3 reflect a less engaged overall audience, but how can you not appreciate Jimmy Butler’s performance and Miami’s win last night? He basically willed them to victory, though the Lakers turning the ball over and AD getting in foul trouble greatly contributed too. Butler had a 40-point triple double, becoming only the third player to do that and the first to do it in a win. He accounted for more Heat offense than anyone in the Finals since 1970. He scored 40 without attempting a three-pointer, with points in the paint at a comparable rate as two Hall of Fame centers did in their 40+ point games in the NBA Finals. Butler joined elite company that includes LeBron, Jerry West, Clyde Frazier, Shaq, and Kareem. That’s how good he was Sunday night.
Of course, it’s also easy to get caught in the moment and not appreciate the big picture. The Lakers didn’t play like their title depended on the outcome of Sunday’s game, and they lost. One would imagine, however, that Game 4 tomorrow night will paint a different picture.
October 7th (post-Game 4 Thoughts)
That ’09 Magic-Lakers comp is looking pretty good right now.
Cheers to the Heat for making this an entertaining series beyond Game 1. Last night’s game was the best yet, the kind of back and forth affair that basketball fans ideally want from the championship round. It was the type of game from Miami that exemplified how well they are coached and how much confidence they built by taking down the league’s best regular season team and another higher seeded team en route to the Finals; it was the type of game from the Lakers that made you appreciate seeing superstars be superstars when it matters most and that offered the kind of complimentary performances from role players that you reflect fondly on years later (shout out to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who sandwiched the game with big shots that swung a close game in LA’s favor).
I must admit that I wanted to see Jimmy Butler try to take over in the fourth quarter. Granted, he was exceptionally defended most of the night by both AD and LeBron, but the difference between an AD/LeBron and Butler is that extra gear that says, “It does not matter how well you defend me, I am going to make tough shots or I am going to get to the foul line because if we lose it’s not going to be because I didn’t try.” Butler was too passive in my opinion, trying so hard to get his teammates good shots in the 4th quarter that he did not seem to realize that the Lakers were in winning mode and that he was the only guy with the chops to create his own shot down the stretch. He will have to be more daring in Game 5 to extend the series.
Inevitability has settled back in now. The Lakers are assuredly going to win the title, altering historical perspectives on LeBron and AD. I just hope that Butler can pull out one more epic game because, even in defeat, he has truly ascended in these playoffs. Nobody has benefited from the bubble playoffs more than Jimmy Butler, so it would only be fitting for the 2020 season to end with Butler going out with a bang. I’m getting ready for the LeBron vs. MJ debate, though, and looking forward to seeing where the likes of Bill Simmons moves Anthony Davis into his Hall of Fame pyramid.
October 10th (post-Game 5 Thoughts)
I isolated myself in the North Carolina mountains this weekend to reset after a tumultuous couple of months and got into a mindset going into Game 5 that I was ready to see and fully appreciate history in the making. Admittedly, I was rooting for LeBron, a player whose career I have followed since my weekly Sports Illustrated subscription brought him into my consciousness in 2000. I’ve said for many years now that I’m going to enjoy LeBron’s run as much as I can because, while I saw Jordan’s peak, I was too young to comprehensively embrace the greatness in front of me. And James was indeed great in Game 5, even if he and the Lakers came up just short of the series clinching win.
The narrative I created around Game 5 was what it would mean to the legacy of King James if the Lakers won. As he has done all post-season long, however, Jimmy Butler made sure the narrative to be discussed was his and not the more famous player trying to advance his legacy at Butler and the Heat’s expense. Butler dueled LeBron all night long in another marvelous display of fortitude and skill. It has been truly amazing what Butler has done in these playoffs and it has been fitting that his pair of triple doubles in the Heat’s two victories in the Finals thus far have ensured that he will be forever remembered. Narratives can quickly shift in the modern sports world. Ask LeBron. Is his dominance in the East remembered over the four NBA Finals in which his Cavs and Heat teams combined to go 2-16 in lopsided series losses? Not according to the articles that I’ve read. Had Butler and the Heat lost in 4 or 5 games, I think that eventually their run in 2020 would have quietly faded into the background historically, but Butler’s second monster game that pushed the series to 6 games? I believe that forever changed the Jimmy Butler narrative and cemented the Heat as one of those rare runner-ups worth discussing in conversations decades removed from the events.
October 12th (post-Game 6 Thoughts)
Well, we were starting to get spoiled with awesome games, weren’t we? The Lakers brought us back down to earth with their wire-to-wire, title-clinching stomp of the Heat. I’m glad Miami made it a series worth remembering, but the sense of inevitability started during and following Game 1 finally caught up in Game 6. The role players for Los Angeles truly answered the call in the NBA Finals, as did Anthony Davis and of course LeBron was LeBron. Miami came into the series looking like the more complete team with a moxie born of an improbable playoff run, but injuries prevented their momentum from continuing into the Finals. Give credit where due, the Lakers were well prepared and played like the top seed in the most dominant conference.
It’s wild to think back to the end of the 2019 season, when the Lakers were a comedy of errors. Look at them now. Their embattled front office saved face with the trade for AD, who formed with LeBron a classic example of a rising tide that lifted all ships. A question asked often as the 2020 season progressed was, “Who was the best teammate James has ever played with: Wade or Davis?” I think it clearly has to be Davis after these playoffs. AD and LeBron meshed rather seamlessly. They were the best team in the West pretty much the entire year, eliminating from past LeBron super-team equations the two-three month feeling out period that resulted in mortal regular seasons. Davis certainly has been the most natural fit alongside James; the dynamic of integrating a star perimeter player into LeBron’s universe always felt like a square peg into a round hole. So, cheers to the duo for making it work so well and to the organization for facilitating a memorable, truly special pairing.
At the end of the Finals each year, I enjoy trying to put the team that won the title into a larger context, namely how memorable the team was to me. As a LeBron fan, this Lakers title is a memorable one. As a fan who was dog tired of the Warriors dynasty, this playoff was a memorable one. Given the craziness that upended the season, the champion is that much more memorable. I’m one of the few on earth who appreciated the ’99 lockout season historically because basketball nearly didn’t happen that year, so when it happened, it was that much more awesome. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. Same thing this year.
I feel some similarities between this LeBron team and Duncan’s Spurs at the beginning of last decade that culminated in the 2014 title. The Spurs were, like LeBron, the steady force in the league for a decade-plus, regardless if they ran up against dynasties. King James is a comparable force. It’s like James is an organization unto himself and I have great admiration for organizations that remain so good for so long that their dedication eventually leads to more championships and more legacy building feats. If the LeBron-AD combo wins another title or two, they’ll get put in the dynasty category of memorability with the Heatles and Warriors and Shaq-Kobe Lakers, but for right now I am putting them alongside that ’14 Spurs squad.
The big picture thoughts continue into the historical place that AD now occupies as the first or second best player on a championship team. He now has hardware that Ewing, Barkley, Malone, etc. never won, giving him a leg up in at least part of that conversation down the road when his career is complete. Bill Simmons mentioned that he might have Davis in his Top 40 all-time after the title. I guess I need to make my own list. Maybe before the 2021 season.
As for LeBron’s all-time greatness level, he certainly has closed the gap between him and #1 hasn’t he? Something about winning a fourth title on a third team; something about winning a title in year 2 with each team since taking control of his destiny in 2010; something about winning this particular title given the uniqueness of this season. Combine the various elements and it is now easier to accept the argument that James might be the greatest ever. I’m certainly as guilty as anyone of being so engaged by the historical narratives of sport and entertainment that I prematurely crown something “all-time great” before the player/game/series/event has had the chance to pass the test of time, but title #4 for the King has distinct qualities that make it feel…greater…or at least the caliber of great achievement that elevates LeBron closer to the threshold he himself has said he desires to reach; he is pretty close to catching his shadow from Chicago. It’s worthy of a comprehensive dissection. Someone needs to create a logical formula for this like I did for sports entertainment lore. It must be done. No element can be left out, from longevity to titles to individual statistics to the state of the league at which a player’s success took place…put all relevant arguments into a blender and see what it spits out. Maybe I’ll do it.
Basketball’s return was everything I wanted it to be. I rely on sports for escape. I’m the type that needs to turn off the real world and the role I desire to play in changing it for the better. Basketball is one of my favorite yearly escapes. To have gone through 2020 without the NBA Playoffs – without the opportunity to dissect these various narratives – would have genuinely left a hole in my world. I could have filled it with other topics you see across the menu bar on this blog, but I never wanted to. I wanted – needed – basketball. So, I’m very thankful that the NBA figured it out. I teach people every day that they cannot live their lives around illness, but there has to be an escape like basketball to assist in that endeavor. Cheers to the NBA for providing that escape.
Top 5 Moments of the 2020 Playoffs to put a nice little bow on the season:
#5 – Denver completes their second 3-1 comeback (watch out for Murray and Jokic moving forward)
#4 – Bam Adebayo’s block to seal Game 1 of the East Finals (best block I’ve ever seen)
#3 – Luka Doncic beats the buzzer (could be the Bret vs. Mr. Perfect of his career, the launching point to an absolutely amazing career)
#2 – Jimmy Butler’s ascendance to superstar
#1 – LeBron’s 4th Title (frankly the champion always deserves this spot)