LeBron’s dominance, Rondo’s resurgence and big takeaways from the Lakers’ title clincheron October 12, 2020 at 5:22 am

“Let’s speak the truth.”

This is how LeBron James started trying to figure out a way to get another title. It was June 2018, and his Cleveland Cavaliers were down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, about to be wiped out by them for the second consecutive year.

Accepting that truth and then dealing with it led James down a path that ended Sunday, with him holding another Larry O’Brien Trophy and another Bill Russell Trophy for Finals MVP — two beautiful pieces of gold he wasn’t sure he’d touch again.

Here was the truth: “Kevin Durant. You’ve got two guys with MVPs on their team,” James said that summer day in Cleveland, referring also to Durant’s Warriors teammate Stephen Curry. “It’s like playing the [New England] Patriots.”

That day, James gave a lesson on where he was in his basketball life. He talked about how he had to have teammates who could think the game as well as play it. He name-checked one player twice: Rajon Rondo.

“Not only do you have to have the talent,” James said, “you have to have the minds as well.”

James knew by then that he was leaving Cleveland. As long as we’re talking reality, he probably knew when Kyrie Irving, the guy he saw as his MVP cohort, forced his way out and was traded to the Boston Celtics in 2017.

What James didn’t know was how he was going to find another MVP with whom to play and whether he had one last act in which he could deal with the Warriors machine or some beast that was sure to rise behind it. Could he change the course of what the back nine of his career was turning into: repeatedly being the best player but on the second-best team?

The answer has become one of the great chapters of James’ career. It is not the defining chapter — his legacy was secure when he came to Los Angeles, no matter what anyone says on the matter.

After several others said they didn’t want to be with James, there was the arduous process of getting Anthony Davis — who doesn’t have an MVP to his name yet but is an MVP-level talent — to become his teammate. Then, more importantly, there was James devoting himself to ensure that they worked together as a lasting force from day one.

That is what earned James this title. He changed teams. He recovered from the worst injury of his career, which wrecked his first season in L.A. Then he changed his position, he rededicated himself to defense, and he used all of his experience to provide leadership for this unprecedented season.

And he brought Rondo, the player he thought was vital to a championship team, with him.

This season was about many things for James. It was about honoring Kobe Bryant. It was about establishing his championship vintage in the Lakers’ history. It was about perseverance through the Orlando, Florida, bubble.

It was also about proving that he could do this all again. Changing the reality. Finding a new truth.

No. 4 — clinched in a 106-93 Game 6 win over the Miami Heat — was unlike any other.

— Brian Windhorst

MORE: The NBA world celebrates the Lakers’ 17th championship


LeBron James reacts to winning his fourth NBA Finals and his first with the Los Angeles Lakers.

LeBron the bully set the tone for the clincher

NBA teams adopt the personas of their best players, and the 2019-20 Lakers adopted the characteristics of their MVP, who just happens to be the most prolific scorer in NBA playoff history.

As a scorer, James set the tone right away in Game 6, barreling his way to a flurry of first-quarter layups that let everyone know the night would end with purple and gold confetti and banner No. 17 for the Los Angeles Lakers.

James was unstoppable early and often, unleashing an offensive clinic rooted in his all-world abilities to infiltrate the interior of the scoring area and wreak havoc in the paint. Ten of his 13 buckets came at the rim.

When James gets into the lane, great things happen for his team. Either he finishes with a bucket, or he draws extra defenders and finds open teammates for clean looks elsewhere.

James ended this postseason as its leader in both points in the paint and total assists.

As ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said in the third quarter after James finished a tough lefty layup on a fast break: “He’s just too good in transition in gaps like that with the power, the athleticism, the grace and the skill.”

That unprecedented blend of size, speed and feel for the game made James a phenom — and the sustainability of it all has extended his reign into his 30s. With James now 35, one of the most incredible takeaways from these wild bubble playoffs is that he obviously still has a lot left in the tank.

He didn’t just win his fourth championship. He did so as the best player in the series, still blowing by defenders on the edges and still overpowering them in the paint.

— Kirk Goldsberry

Jimmy Butler was gassed, but his Finals performance was special

Butler made it a point after Game 5 to say that he and his team left everything they had on the floor, but he was confident that they could win the last two games of the Finals and finish the Heat’s dream run inside the bubble. LeBron James and the Lakers didn’t let that happen.

James set the tone at the opening tip by defending Butler, but if it wasn’t James, a Lakers defender hounded Butler everywhere he went on the floor. They weren’t going to allow Butler to beat them. After Butler spent the past three months of his basketball life imposing his will on anyone who came in his path, the Lakers deflated the player who prides himself on being able to play every second if needed. They made Butler look human, and they made the Heat look tired. It ended one of the greatest postseason stretches by a single player in recent memory.

Butler’s triple-doubles in Games 3 and 5 will live on in Finals history, two of the most sublime individual performances, but Butler’s totality of contributions in this series shouldn’t be forgotten either. Coming into Game 6, he was averaging 29 points, 8.6 rebounds, 10.2 assists and 2.6 steals and shooting 55.5% from the field in 42.6 minutes per game. The fact that he did much of his work against James and didn’t back down from the challenge should only add to Butler’s bubble legacy.

Before this season in Miami, Butler’s reputation around the league was that of a talented player who struggled to fit in organizations as the leader of a group, a mercurial All-Star who was probably more productive in a supporting role — not as the face of a championship contender.

By lifting his game to an entirely different level in the bubble, Butler forever changed the narrative surrounding his game. He silenced his doubters. No matter what he does from this point forward, Butler has proven that he is capable of what he believed he could be: the kind of leader who can deliver on the game’s biggest stage.

— Nick Friedell

The Lakers’ biggest weapon: Turning defense into offense

Many times early in Game 6, Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro or one of their Heat teammates would drive or pass their way deep into the paint, then look as if they were sinking into quicksand.

Although there’s almost no better place for a scorer to be on the basketball court, Miami generally looked rushed, unsure and sometimes downright afraid to go up for a shot near the rim Sunday.

There were reasons for that: Coach Frank Vogel replaced starter Dwight Howard with wing player Alex Caruso, helping the Lakers fly around a bit more on defense. LeBron James committed to sticking with Butler to begin the game. But the true reason, of course, was the hobbled Heat not wanting to challenge long-limbed big man Anthony Davis around the basket.

Miami’s hesitation yielded bad passes and rushed perimeter jumpers, most of which the Lakers made them pay for in the form of transition baskets headed the other way. James and the Lakers, who finished the regular season second in fast-break points per game, scored the first 16 fast-break points of Game 6 en route to taking a 36-point lead in the second half. That breakneck pace was clearly too much for Butler and a worn-down Miami defense to handle.

Between their ball-hawking defense and their ability to turn those rebounds and giveaways into fast-break points, the Lakers put on a show in transition in the Finals. Game 6 was no exception.

— Chris Herring

Rondo and the supporting cast were perfect for LeBron and AD

In the 2008 Finals, Rajon Rondo scored 20 points in Games 2 through 5 combined before exploding for 21 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, and 6 steals in Game 6 to annihilate the Lakers and help the Boston Celtics to their 17th ring.

Rondo scored 10 points combined in Games 3 through 5 of the 2020 Finals before exploding for 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting to help the Lakers win their 17th title.

Much of the focus on Rondo has been on what defenses take away from him by ducking under screens. The flip side is that Rondo is genius at taking what defenses give him. If they shade him baseline, he goes there, knowing that getting deep into the paint opens up something.

When he caught Jimmy Butler peeking, Rondo blew by him for layups. When the Heat gave him practice 3s, he made them pay.

We measure James’ supporting perimeter players by their standstill 3-point shooting. Defenses have gotten too fast, too smart helping and recovering, for any player’s skill set to stop there. They force role guys to make the next play: to attack closeouts, to drive into traffic and to figure out what to do.

The Lakers’ supporting cast kept the machine moving when Miami threw bodies at LeBron and Anthony Davis. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had four assists in Game 2 and five in Game 5. He scored 48 points in the final three games of the series and made several floaters.

Danny Green hit an off-the-dribble floater in Bam Adebayo‘s face early in the series and slung a few — just a few! — gorgeous, inside-out passes, including one in Game 6 out of a pick-and-roll with LeBron that ended with a Markieff Morris triple.

Alex Caruso freed Morris with a nasty flare screen. Caruso reads the game from one step ahead. Frank Vogel started him in L.A.’s most important game, shifting to a lineup I had labeled perhaps L.A.s’ most intriguing group before the bubble. It had logged only 12 postseason minutes before Game 6.

Caruso defended like mad and helped ignite the Lakers’ dormant transition attack with steals and run-outs, including one ahead of a clearly exhausted Butler.

Kyle Kuzma couldn’t hit anything but kept the Lakers’ offense from stalling with cuts and occasional drive-and-kick attacks.

All the attention on LeBron and Davis makes those attacks easier for role players. But they still have to make plays.

They made enough to do their part in the Lakers’ 17th title.

— Zach Lowe


Mike Breen delivers a summary of the hard-fought battle between the Heat and the Lakers.

KCP shows his worth inside the playoff bubble

When Kentavious Caldwell-Pope joined the Lakers, it was a marriage of convenience. Caldwell-Pope needed a team; the Lakers needed to use their cap space.

Three years later, Caldwell-Pope’s 3-point shooting and defense helped the Lakers win their 17th championship.

All season, the question surrounding these Lakers was who would be the player to step up as a reliable third option behind the team’s two superstars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

More often than not during this run to a championship inside the NBA’s bubble, it was Caldwell-Pope who provided that scoring punch for the Lakers.

That was the case in Game 6, when he finished with 17 points on 6-for-13 shooting overall and 2-for-7 from 3-point range. Caldwell-Pope was the Lakers’ third-leading scorer in these playoffs, averaging 10.7 points and, more importantly, shooting 37.8% from 3-point range, giving Los Angeles some desperately needed consistency from deep.

Along the way, he provided sturdy defense on the wings, playing a key role in a unit that — along with James and Davis — was the backbone of this Lakers team’s success all season. His play also helped lessen the blow of the Lakers’ being without Avery Bradley, who opted out of the NBA restart in June.

Caldwell-Pope’s performance not only helped the Lakers win a title but also should help him build up his bank account this winter. He enters this offseason with an $8.5 million player option for next season. It is likely that he will opt out of that contract and become an unrestricted free agent — one who will have plenty of leverage, thanks to both his being a client of Rich Paul (as are James and Davis) and the fact that the Lakers won’t have another way to realistically replace him.

When this partnership began, it wasn’t clear how long it would last. But after this run in the bubble, Caldwell-Pope has proven himself on the biggest stage.

— Tim Bontemps

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