Lakers defeat Heat for NBA title
ORLANDO, Fla. - Through the darkness and drama, the questions about whether the Los Angeles Lakers' luster was gone forever, remained the hope that a day like this would happen again.
A championship. Confetti sprayed all over the court. A superstar puffing a cigar, grinning at what he'd done.
On Sunday evening, the Lakers became champions for the 17th time with a 106-93 win over the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
This time they did it in a gym shaped like Mickey Mouse with two superstars who came to resuscitate the franchise. Anthony Davis came because of LeBron James.
At the end of a strange, heartbreaking season - the longest NBA season ever - James won his fourth championship. He notched a triple-double in the clinching game - his first of the series - with 28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists. He earned Finals most valuable player honors for the fourth time in his career.
Afterward, he shared the glory with owner Jeanie Buss, general manager Rob Pelinka, coach Frank Vogel and all the fans who couldn't be there.
"I told Jeanie when I came here I was going to put this franchise back in the position that it belongs," James said. "... We just want our respect, Rob wants his respect, coach Vogel wants his respect, the organization wants their respect, Laker nation wants their respect.
"I want my damn respect too."
This title didn't look like the rest. It didn't happen at home or on the road. There weren't fans, hostile or friendly; there wasn't a familiar ride to an arena. There was just basketball in a bubble that protected them from a global pandemic that gripped the nation. They remained on this campus at Disney World, steeling themselves for a mentally taxing existence, aided by the knowledge of their grander mission.
James wanted the chance to make history. He wanted to tell a story no one else could - that of a transcendent basketball player who came to Los Angeles to save the Lakers. He faced a skeptical fan base that needed proof he could do it - that vandalized murals that dared suggest James was their king.
The LeBron James Era started with losses and the first serious injury of his career. The resignation of Magic Johnson, the Lakers icon and team president who recruited James to L.A., in the spring of 2019 caught him by surprise, and his patience was tested by a group of 20-somethings who wanted to impress him but didn't know how.
The Lakers missed the playoffs for an unthinkable seventh consecutive year.
"Thinking I have something to prove fuels me," James said. "It fueled me over this last year and a half since the injury. It fueled me because no matter what I've done in my career to this point, there's still little rumblings of doubt."
The reset in the summer of 2019 wasn't smooth or painless, but it set the stage for a major recovery. It gave James the co-star he had yearned for - publicly at times.
This adage had stopped being true in the NBA: What the Lakers want, the Lakers get.
But it had been replaced by a modern NBA adage - what star players want, star players get. And these stars wanted to be Lakers.
James and Davis were perfect together.
"Respect," Davis said. "True friendship. But you've got to see us off the court. It's unreal."
They won 24 of their first 27 games. They balked at the insistence that they weren't beating strong teams. They began waiting for each other to leave the court after games, like best friends on a playground, though they had a more serious purpose.
They got through a December lull and stormed through January. On Jan. 25, James passed Kobe Bryant on the all-time scoring list in Bryant's hometown of Philadelphia. Bryant congratulated him on Twitter.
On their flight back, Dwight Howard woke his teammates to a nightmare. Bryant's helicopter had crashed in Calabasas, California. He and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were dead, along with seven others.
The Lakers cried and hugged on the tarmac before they left one another, as the rest of the city did the same. James left the plane and broke down sobbing - his colossal shoulders shook with each breath.
In a team meeting later that week, James told his teammates and everyone there that his shoulders were broad enough to carry them through this. All they had to do was hang on.
The team became a living tribute to Bryant - never allowed to forget his loss. The players didn't mind. They wanted the pressure that came with dedicating their season to him. They wore the black snake-printed jerseys he designed.
They did the thing he cared about more than anything except his family - they went back to winning.
When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the season, they waited. And when the NBA concocted its bubble plan, James never hesitated to join.
When he got there, he hated it.
"You wouldn't be human if you didn't have ups and downs in the bubble," James said. "At times I was questioning myself, should I be here? Is this worth sacrificing my family?"
He missed his daughter's first days of kindergarten, his son's 16th birthday. He stayed in touch over FaceTime as much as he could.
"For some odd reason, I was able to keep the main thing the main thing," James said. "When I talked about all the stuff that I missed, they understood that too, and that made it a lot easier for me."
After everything he'd been through for the last 15 months, nothing would get in his way of winning a title.
He had played more playoff games than anybody in NBA history - he knew what it took. He had been to 10 Finals - more than any active player.
He led the Lakers to five-game wins over the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets.
Then came time to face the organization that taught him how to become a champion.
The Miami Heat were not scared of James. They weren't even supposed to be in the Finals. They entered the playoffs as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, led by a brash superstar in Jimmy Butler who'd curiously picked them the previous summer, and a gaggle of young and talented players whom Butler believed in fiercely.
They seemed dead after losses in Games 1 and 2, especially after losing starters Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic to injuries. They were, in fact, far from dead.
They punched back against Lakers runs. They took Games 3 and 5. They turned Lakers miscues into costly turnovers and played Butler until he barely could stand. He became the first player in NBA history to notch two 30-point triple-doubles in his first NBA Finals. He was only the second to do it in the Finals, joining James.
In the end, though, the Lakers remembered who they were.
They were part of the sparkle of this franchise, sure, but they also were a tough defensive team that could dominate opponents. Rajon Rondo reminded them in a team meeting Saturday night.
In Game 6, the Lakers held the Heat to 36 first-half points. They held Butler to 12 points in the game. He checked out with two minutes remaining, and the Lakers prepared to celebrate.
The Lakers stars checked out too.
Davis wandered into the back of the arena and James followed him. He teased Davis about being soft for crying. They emerged with James' arms around Davis' neck, the two of them bouncing and grinning.
It reminded James of what he felt like winning his first championship.
"When I got traded," Davis said, "he just had that belief, that we have a chance to win it all."
Every day he spent with James, he believed it more and more. The proof that he was right lay on a court in Florida covered in trophy-shaped confetti.