The viral moment of LeBron James sitting center court as confetti fell from the ceiling following the Lakers’ series-clinching win over the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals appeared to be a real-time view of James calibrating for the NBA Finals.
For a man wired to be in this moment after nine previous finals appearances, including eight times in a nine-year span, he knows exactly the mindset necessary to compete and succeed on that stage. Once the ball tips off for Game 1 on Wednesday, and until the clock hits zero in the final game of the series, there is no time for reflection of the path or appreciation of the accomplishment, so he got it all out the way in that moment.
“I was just, one, just getting my breath back up underneath me after a hard-fought series versus one of the most well-coached teams I’ve played against in the postseason. One of the most respected teams I’ve played against,” James said Saturday after the game.
“I was also thinking about some of my teammates who this is their first appearance in the finals. Obviously, [Anthony Davis] had a lot on my thought process. This is the reason why I wanted to be a teammate of his and why I brought him here. I wanted him to see things that he hadn’t saw before in this league. And to be able to come through for him meant a lot for me personally. And then I started thinking about the next opponent; Boston had a few moments in my head, Miami had a few moments in my head as well -- how challenging that’s gonna be. Whoever wins that next series and how challenging that’s gonna be. And then I just started thinking about my journey as well.”
As it turns out, that journey and his next opponent are well-acquainted. And that shared history he has with the Miami Heat, and their lack of a player with the combination of immense talent and experience on this stage, is one of the reasons why James’ former team will have a hard time getting four wins in this series. Whatever the difference is between the mindset of a player capable of reaching a finals and a player capable of winning it, James hit that switch while sitting on that court in the NBA’s bubble in Orlando.
For the majority of Miami’s roster, including their best player, this is all new.
At the start of the 2019-20 NBA season, most people would’ve told you the Miami Heat were a playoff team. With a squad that barely missed the previous postseason, they had just added All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler, the same player who catapulted the 76ers into serious contenders after a mid-season trade sent him to Philadelphia from Minnesota. But once Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating fadeaway in Game 7 of the 2019 conference semifinals sent the Sixers packing, and Philly failed to reach a long-term deal with their new acquisition, Butler headed to South Beach for his fourth team in as many years.
In his previous stops, Butler had proven himself good enough to elevate his teams into the playoffs — as he did with the Chicago Bulls and Timberwolves — so that was a given, but no one outside of Miami saw NBA Finals in his first season with the team.
By the time the season was forced into a standstill in March by the novel coronavirus pandemic, it had become apparent Miami was among the conference’s best. Still, once the season resumed in June, and as the playoffs neared, talk of the East’s favorites usually centered around the Milwaukee Bucks and league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning NBA Champion Toronto Raptors (even without Leonard’s services) and the young but promising Boston Celtics. Those teams did, after all, finish the regular season with better records than the Heat’s 44-29 mark, and they all had cores of players who had previously been in the playoffs together.
The last time Miami was in the playoffs, only Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic and Kelly Olynyk were on the roster. Simply put, this core had no playoff experience together. Though veterans in the rotation — Butler, Dragic, Olynyk, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala — had varying degrees of playoff experience elsewhere, Adebayo’s five games as a rookie counted for the combined postseason experience of their younger players, including Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson.
This team was only supposed to make it difficult for one of the expected contenders along their path to the Finals, not beat them. But beat them is exactly what the Heat did after they first swept the Indiana Pacers, who finished one spot ahead of them in the standings, then shockingly upended the Bucks in five games and finally held off the Celtics in six.
Now, the Heat get set to face a team that was always supposed to make it this far. The Lakers were one of the preseason favorites to reach the NBA Finals, and after finishing the regular season with the Western Conference’s best record, they’ve lost just three games the entire postseason -- to competition some would consider superior to the East’s best. And in addition to James’ past accomplishments on this stage, they have six other players with NBA Finals experience -- Quinn Cook, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo and J.R. Smith.
Then, there’s Davis, who along with James, is a top-two player in this series. James said he brought Davis to LA to show him what it was like to be in this position, but James also knew he needed Davis to finish the job because he's come up short so many times in the past when his second-best player was worst than his opponents' second guy. There's an argument that as a team, the Heat are better than the Lakers, but their one-two combination of Butler-Adebayo is a distant second to James-Davis.
While Butler’s pursuit of an NBA championship and organization with a similar attitude towards hard work brought him to Miami, a move that’s already proven wise, James’ same ambitions took him along this very path almost 10 years ago. And it was James’ failure on this stage that brought him to the realization of what it took to win an NBA title, something he finally did his second year in Miami.
In addition to the series’ two best players, the Lakers also boast what was the league’s third-best defensive rating in the regular season. They’ll be able to stifle a Miami team that has struggled through its share of first-half scoring droughts this postseason. Miami ranks 12th out of 16 playoff teams in first quarter points per game and have a -0.7 differential in first quarters. The Lakers, on the other hand, average a league-best 31.6 first-quarter points with a league-leading +4.1 differential. The Heat’s slow starts have caused them to trail by double-digits in seven of 11 games against the Celtics and Bucks. By comparison, the Lakers have only gotten down by double-digits three times the entire postseason.
If the Heat allow the Lakers to build such leads on them this series, they likely won’t be able to climb out of those holes the way they have in the past. The Lakers are 12-0 this postseason in games they’ve built double-digit leads, and they shouldn’t have a hard time getting off to fast starts against Miami thanks to the matchup nightmare that is Davis. If the Heat stick with a starting front court of Butler, Crowder and Adebayo, that leaves them at a supreme size disadvantage against the Lakers interior combination of James, Davis and Howard or McGee. Expect the Lakers to dominate the boards, discourage shots at the rim and score a lot of points in the paint.
On paper, this series is a slight mismatch, tilted by the superstars. But it becomes a bigger mismatch when you consider the intangibles. The Heat had an incredible season and are to be commended for it, but barring an injury, this is likely where their incredible run stops. James is out to make sure of that.
"For me personally, the job is not done," James said. "But it's great to hit moments throughout the course of a journey and appreciate that, and this is all a part of the process. But the job is not done for me, personally. For us as a franchise, I'm extremely proud to be a part of this franchise getting back to where it belongs. And that's playing for championships, competing for championships, represent the Western Conference this year in the championship. So, this is what I came here for."