In a season which started with fireworks on October 22 few would have predicted we would be here, preparing for Game One of the NBA Finals on October 1.
The positive Covid-19 test of Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert sparked a shutdown that would push everything deep into the summer, into a protected bubble in Orlando and almost 12 months on, just two teams remain.
LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers will take on the King’s former side in the Miami Heat and while those from LA go into the seven-game series as heavy favourites, the underdog Heat have relished being written off.
The Los Angeles Lakers emerged from the Western Conference Finals to contend for the title
They will take on an unfancied Miami Heat team that is thriving with their underdog status
It has been a particularly trying year for the Lakers, along with the rest of the NBA, with the death of franchise icon Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash in January.
Bryant’s death, alongside his daughter and future WNBA star Gianna, has left an indelible mark and has been an added motivation for the squad to win the championship as a tribute to one of the Lakers’ all-time greats.
For the Heat nobody predicted them to go the distance. They came through a well-drilled Indiana Pacers team, a Milwaukee Bucks squad with the best record in the NBA and an exciting Boston Celtics team to get this far.
Sportsmail breaks down the key areas of the NBA Finals, who to keep an eye on and why it is time to simply appreciate the body of LeBron’s work after 17 years in the NBA.
Doing it for Kobe
January 26, 2020, was a day that changed the Lakers forever. When news broke of the tragic death of Bryant and his daughter Gianna in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, the NBA world felt empty.
The last time the Lakers got their hands on a championship it was with Bryant as their star man.
That was a decade ago, a season in which Bryant produced virtuoso after virtuoso on the court to drag them over the line, eventually beating the Boston Celtics in seven games.
It has been an incredibly tough year emotionally for the Lakers organisation following the death of franchise legend Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash in Calabasas back in January
And so 10 years on, it would be fitting if the Lakers would go on to win the championship in Bryant’s honour.
Speaking after sealing the Lakers’ spot in the Finals, James was reflective about Bryant.
‘Every time you put on the purple and gold you think about his legacy, you think about him and what he meant to this franchise for 20-plus years,’ he said.
‘I’m extremely proud to be a part of this franchise getting back to where it belongs, and that’s playing for championships.’
While he is not there to witness them reclaim the trophy that has eluded them for so long, it is hard to escape the feeling that Bryant is not permanently on the court with them, a sixth man if you will.
Take Anthony Davis’ Game Two buzzer-beater against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals and he shouted out ‘KOBE’ after the dagger shot to ice the game.
He has been an added inspiration and a championship win would be dedicated to his memory
Then take into account the ‘Black Mamba’ jerseys they have worn in this run. Bryant is an inspiration to this group, making them feel like they are playing for a bigger purpose.
‘I love you big bro,’ LeBron wrote in his tribute to Kobe following his passing.
‘My heart goes to Vanessa and the kids. I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man!’
It’s been a long season but now the Lakers are four games away from delivering one of their greatest ever the championship he has waited a decade to see return to Los Angeles.
Miami’s overachieving stars like it that way
Rightly or wrongly, Miami will be written off by the masses.
Going up against LeBron and Co is the ultimate test. Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers failed. James Harden and the Houston Rockets failed and, most recently, Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets failed.
But the Heat like being written off, it only adds to their siege mentality in the locker room.
A first-round sweep – winning four straight games – of the Indiana Pacers set the tone but it was knocking off the Milwaukee Bucks, the team with the best record in basketball, that really showed they were serious about a championship.
Think again if being out of favour bothers this group, particularly leader Jimmy Butler.
Nobody expected this young Heat side to make a wave but they keep defying expectations
‘So what that nobody picked us to be here? That’s OK,’ he said in pre-Finals media day.
‘Pretty sure nobody is picking us to win, either. That’s OK. But we understand that. We embrace that, because, at the end of the day, we truly don’t care.
‘We’re just going to go out here and compete, play together like we always have, and I’m going to see where we end up.
‘But at the end of the day we’re going to do this our way, the Miami Heat way, and that way has worked for us all year long.’
This group are dogged, tough on both ends and don’t seem to have any quit in them. There will be no freebies served up by the Heat. If the Lakers are going to win it, they’ll have to show all of that Mamba Mentality that Bryant became known for.
Just appreciate LeBron James
One statistic that stood out this week speaking to the greatness of LeBron is that he has been to more NBA Finals than 27 teams have in their entire history.
In a 30-team league, only the LA Lakers, Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors have been to more than LeBron has managed on his own in his 17-year career.
Take the last decade and the numbers are even more striking. The Cleveland-born star has been to nine of the last 10 NBA Finals. Since 2011, the only run where he never made it (2019) he was injured and the Lakers missed the play-offs in its totality.
And so, yes, start appreciating LeBron James. He’s one of a kind. Hailed as ‘The Chosen One’ straight out of high school, splashed across the front of Sports Illustrated and he has delivered wherever he has gone.
LeBron (middle) is an easy target on social media but it is time to show more appreciation
Having LeBron is as close to securing a Finals berth as is possible in the modern NBA.
He goes into this series with 34,241 career points, 9,346 assists, 9,405 rebounds and 94 triple doubles. A freak of nature and in a world where it is increasingly easy to criticise LeBron, demonise him in the conversation for Greatest of All Time alongside Michael Jordan, just sit back and enjoy one of sport’s greatest athletes master his craft.
Pat Riley lost LeBron and couldn’t get him back…
Two years ago Pat Riley made a power play to bring back LeBron.
He waited in a hotel room for the him and his entourage, ready to go on the charm offensive to reunite with him in Miami.
It has been reported that Riley felt ‘tremendous anger’ when LeBron left Miami and now he goes up against the player that once was the cornerstone of his franchise playing for the team that got Riley started as a major name in the sport.
Riley left the Lakers in 1990 and has amazingly never faced them as a coach or an executive of another team in the play-offs. That all changes with Game One on Thursday morning.
Pat Riley’s split with LeBron was far from amicable and now he could come back to haunt him
‘I was absolutely livid, which I expressed to myself and my closest friends,’ Riley told Sports Illustrated’s Ian Thomsen in 2018 when asked how he felt at LeBron’s departure.
‘My beautiful plan all of a sudden came crashing down. That team in 10 years could have won five or six championships. But I get it. I get the whole chronicle of [LeBron’s] life.’
With absolutely no love lost, this is a series neither man will want to end up on the losing side of.
How does each side’s stars compare?
In short, they don’t. Anyone following the NBA can agree that the Lakers’ two franchise stars are far superior to what the Heat possess.
LeBron and Anthony Davis are two of the top five players in the league and are widely considered the most dominant duo in basketball.
It is impossible for the Heat to devise a plan to completely shut down the pair of them and so Erik Spoelstra and his squad need to pack the paint, play a zone and limit the ability for the two to drive to the basket.
LeBron is averaging 26.7 points, 8.9 assists and 10.3 rebounds a game in this play-off run. Chuck in Davis’ 28.8 points, 3.6 assists and 9.3 rebounds and few duos can post numbers as strong and consistent as these two in purple and gold.
LeBron and Anthony Davis are the far superior superstars on the floor throughout this series
But the reason Miami can take heart in limiting their effectiveness is to keep them spaced out on the three-point line.
LeBron is averaging 34.9 per cent from three in the post-season while Davis is, on average, making one three-point shot a game with an overall efficiency of 36.6 per cent.
Miami can live with those sort of returns and that in turn would force the Lakers’ supporting cast to beat them.
The key comparisons are LeBron v Butler and Davis v Adebayo.
Looking at the stats for the first head-to-head it is only steals (1.9 a game) where Butler performs better than LeBron. Butler’s 20.7 points a game, 4.5 assists and 5.7 rebounds pale in comparison.
But Butler has previous from his days in Chicago of defending LeBron and that is as big a role in this series as his contribution on the offensive end.
The other match-up sees two big men out of Kentucky going head-to-head.
Jimmy Butler (left) and Bam Adebayo (right) need to come up big on the defensive end
Both have elevated in the play-offs and that has been a big reason behind each team’s success to date. Davis has shown he can, as early as next year, be the best player on the Lakers while Bam Adebayo is making a case to be considered a borderline top-10 player in the NBA right now when on form.
Adebayo’s averages of 18.5 points on 57.1 per cent shooting, 11.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.9 blocks, and 1.2 steals per game don’t do justice to how impressive he has been.
He has been the guy on both sides of the floor alongside Butler and Heat success is likely to hinge on Adebayo’s success in his battle with Davis.
The two of them have been the best big man on the floor in each of their respective series so far. While Davis is the far more accomplished player, Adebayo is an emerging star and can defend with the best of them.
Talent is one thing but application is another.
What about the role players?
After the stars are sorted, the Heat take centre stage.
The Lakers are incredibly top heavy, they know that, but in LeBron and Davis there is so much talent that even a less-than-impressive set of role players is enough to go all the way.
For the Heat that is not the philosophy at all. Victory for the Heat in this series would show to the rest of the basketball world that it is more about having the right pieces throughout the squad than just front-loading with a couple of ball-dominant superstars.
Second year talent Duncan Robinson and rookie Tyler Herro have been among the standouts for the Heat. Herro in particular has been sublime, dropping 37 points in a crucial Game Four win over the Celtics.
Rookie star Tyler Herro (left) and second year shooter Duncan Robinson (right) have stood out
Thereafter, if this was a draft board, it is likely Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala are the next selections from the Heat.
Using a direct statistical comparison for Dragic, a Heat guard, against Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and it is the Miami man who comes out on top in points, assists and rebounds in this post-season.
Take points as one standalone metric and Dragic’s average of 20.9 a game dwarfs the 9.9 Caldwell-Pope has mustered.
Then take another pair of guards: Herro for the Heat and Alex Caruso for the Lakers.
The young rookie comes out on top in points, assists and rebounds, with a better field goal, three-point and free throw percentage to match.
But where the Lakers can gain an edge is with the big men with Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee and Davis all comfortable playing as the center.
Howard, the 2004 No 1 draft pick, is enjoying a career revival back with the Lakers and along with McGee and Davis they can wear down Adebayo and the Heat’s other physical players.
Rajon Rondo (left) and Dwight Howard (right) have a decade of experience Lakers can utilise
It won’t show up on the box score at the end but tiring out players by posting up under the basket will create more space for the three-point shooters on the team, such as Danny Green, to get more open shots.
And don’t forget Play-Off Rondo. Rajon Rondo is immense to this team because he can alleviate the ball-handling work-load in the point-guard position of LeBron.
That is key, particularly in the minutes when LeBron is sitting on the bench.
Miami have the superior role players but Lakers have all the experience in Rondo and Howard and that could be telling when things get tense.
The two coaches
It has been a long wait but Frank Vogel is finally going to coach a team in the NBA Finals.
Starting in the NBA in 1998 the Lakers head coach has seen it all click 22 years on with LeBron in his corner and he is within touching distance of a first championship ring.
Beat the Heat and he would join an illustrious group of coaches in winning the Larry O’Brien trophy in his first season with the Lakers: Phil Jackson, Riley, Paul Westhead, Bill Sharman and John Kundla are the others who managed it.
‘He’s been great. He’s been unbelievable,’ LeBron said of Vogel this week. ‘I mean, it’s been a crazy obstacle course for our franchise this whole year.
‘He’s been able to manage it the whole time. Bringing in guys, losing guys. He’s just always been the anchor, and our coaching staff has been right behind him. I can’t say anything more than that.’
Frank Vogel (left) is aiming for his first title while Erik Spoelstra is eyeing a third championship
In the other corner stands Spoelstra, the man who helped deliver two of LeBron’s three championships to date – 2012 and 2103. James won in 2016 with the Cavaliers.
So he has the pedigree. He didn’t always have it. There were doubts when LeBron arrived in south beach if he had what it takes but by taking this team to the Finals he has only reinforced that he remains one of the elite coaches in the league.
Winning just two of four Finals with LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in his ranks Spoelstra is seen as underachieving. But critics would shrink into oblivion if he can guide this young Heat side to glory in the Orlando bubble.
Adjustments mid-series have really stood out from both of these coaches and they deserve credit for their tactical nous. Against the Milwaukee Bucks, Spoelstra was sublime in setting schemes to all but nullify the effectiveness of league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. For the Lakers, going smaller to match the Houston Rockets was devastating and their opponents never won a game after Vogel’s switch.