For all the excuses being made about the Los Angeles Lakers run to the 2020 NBA title, the event itself is still quite stunning. Sure, the Lakers missed out on playing the crosstown Clippers, who were widely seen as the title favorites entering the year and held that distinction throughout. Sure, they didn’t have to face Giannis Antentokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, who would have presented serious problems for LeBron James’ team and arguably would have matched up better with LA than Miami did, even though the Bucks fell to the Heat in the second round. Sure, James and the Lakers got practically a whole offseason’s worth of time off before beginning the playoffs and winning the title. And sure, the Heat had one member of their crunch-time five practically miss the entire NBA Finals and another miss two games of it.
But the Lakers also had these things going against them: Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee playing legitimately big minutes en route to the title. The bubble’s eventually toxic atmosphere and the mental toll it exhibited on those left in it for the season’s final days. The loss of the franchise’s icon of Kobe Bryant back in January, and the weight that fell on everyone in the organization.
This title counts – unequivocally. Below are the reasons the Lakers won these Finals. They also help explain why the 2020 championship matters.
Anthony Davis took matters into his own hands
One of the biggest keys for the Lakers and Davis in this series was to put Bam Adebayo in situations on the court he wasn’t comfortable in. Adebayo’s height disadvantage against Davis was paramount. Davis made sure he towered over the Heat’s young, bouncy center in any way possible throughout the series. Davis could pull-ups and jump-shots from practically anywhere on the court against Miami and Adebayo. No one could contest it.
Davis also used his size to get the rim, a part of his game that’s unprecedented among almost anyone in league history. What seven-foot center is doing stuff like this?
Even though Davis didn’t have Miami’s best option on him above, would things really have been different with Adebayo on him? Sure, Adebayo’s switching is the best part of his game, but once again, the size advantage Davis has likely would have mattered more.
Davis had a serious case for Finals MVP. There was no wrong answer – though the unanimous ballot in favor of James was surprising. Not only was Davis a monster on offense, but his presence defensively halted Miami’s offense in the close-out Game 6 Sunday night. Throwing Davis right in the middle forced Miami’s drive and kick to rely solely on threes, which resulted in Goran Dragic going 0-4 and Jae Crowder going 1-5 from beyond the arc.
Given that there was little room between Davis and James, the real MVP of the Finals might have been Lakers head coach Frank Vogel instead.
The Lakers got hot shooting the ball, and every night, a third-best player emerged
No matter what the circumstances were, it’s quite incredible the Lakers third option throughout these Finals was never Danny Green. That’s was exactly what Los Angeles paid him to do last summer, and he ended up turning in a six game average of 28.9 percent from three. The Lakers still won.
That’s because playoff Rondo emerged. That’s because Caldwell-Pope turned into the guy we always hoped he’d be in Detroit. That’s because Frank Vogel got those two to buy-in, and play for the team and not themselves.
Rondo’s three-point shooting was the biggest x-factor. While it was still a mere 33.3 percent, that’s competent instead of below-average or detrimental. This allowed Rondo to be effective without the ball in his hands – a revolutionary change from the regular season.
Rondo owning the ball wasn’t a bad thing, either, representing another change from the regular season. He put up 5.5 assists per game as the secondary playmaker to James. He got the ball to those who needed it. He was, in essence, a perfect backup point guard.
If one was going to pick the Heat in this series, they’d point to LA’s reliance on guys like Rondo or Caldwell-Pope – both of whom would likely be the seventh or eighth-best player on Miami’s roster.
Caldwell-Pope instead turned into a three-and-D monster. Well over half of his shots were threes in the Finals (63.3 percent), and he turned in three 15+ point outings in six games, all while keeping his usage percentage at an impressively low 18.3 percent.
None of these performances were the reason the Lakers won. But it certainly gave James and Davis some breathing room.
The super-stardom of the Davis and James duo overpowered
Davis possibly deserving the Finals MVP shouldn’t discredit James’ performance. Game 5’s war with Jimmy Butler was one of the best games he’s ever had in the playoffs. His threes in the third quarter kept the Lakers in it, and Butler just won the battle.
After being passive late in Game 3, James adjusted and dominated. His constant drives to the rim in Game 6 were unstoppable. Game 1 had more to do with Miami’s injuries, but James at times made it seem like the Heat didn’t have a chance regardless.
Davis was a two way menace in the series. His Game 2 made the series feel like it was over, given Miami’s injuries and overall lack of answers. With Adebayo out, Davis used his athleticism to hang around the rim more – an area where Adebayo would’ve stood more of a chance. The former Hornet/Pelican missed five shots, and tipped in every ball that fell off the rim. It was a completely dominant performance – one that you’d wish to see from somebody like Joel Embiid more.
The no-show in Miami’s Game 3 win likely hurt his Finals MVP case. After Game 2, the performance could be understandable, but James never took a game off against the Heat. Davis did, and it likely cost him a single vote.
Game 6 won’t make any headlines, considering that the Lakers won the title by blowing Miami out, but Davis neutralized the Dragic-Adebayo pick-and-roll that initially hurt the Lakers early in Game 1 by hunkering down just below the free throw line and denying any lanes with his long arms. Miami ran the set once Sunday night and it failed . That was the end of the Heat’s use of it.
These Finals proved – as they usually do – that stars matter. Davis and James proved that if you have them two, nothing else you have matters. They’re good enough to make up for whatever else the roster has. Could it have been easier? Sure. That might be something the Lakers address this offseason after swinging big and missing on Kawhi Leonard last summer. But James and Davis proved this year that they don’t need it. They’re that good.
Like last season, injuries had an unfortunate and profound effect on the Finals. The losses Miami suffered in Game 1 gave the series a bit of an inevitability. Reports that trickled out during the game indicated Dragic was likely not returning (making his Game 6 appearance a miracle). Adebayo was guaranteed to miss at least Game 2. After the drubbing early in the series, it felt like Miami really had no chance, making Butler’s Game 5 performance that more special.
Essentially, it’s hard to say that the injuries might have mattered. After watching the destruction that Davis and James reeked, it really seemed like Miami wouldn’t have had a chance regardless. It’s possible they could have forced a Game 7, in which anything could happen, but that’s hard to imagine after the no show from them in Game 6.
To those that will look for ways to discredit this title for James, you can’t bring up the injuries or the “easy” path the Lakers had. Butler legitimately out-dueled James in Game 5. Miami beat Milwaukee not totally out of luck but out of work and effort on the defensive end. The Clippers – sure, the Lakers might have gotten lucky there. But with the way Paul George was playing, and the lack of answers Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac had for Nikola Jokic, would that series really have been won by the Clippers? It’s fair to say Adebayo did a good job against Davis in the Finals compared to what the Clippers bigs would have looked like.
The case to dismiss James’ fourth ring needs to have these arguments propping it up: 1) James had five months between the regular season and playoffs – the length of a normal offseason. 2) Anthony Davis was a top-three MVP candidate and arguably outplayed him in the Finals.
You can’t use injuries. Recent Finals that have been heavily affected by injuries don’t have the same reputation. We don’t undervalue Golden State’s first title in 2015 because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love got hurt. We consistently talked about Kawhi Leonard’s quest to be one of the few players ever to be the best player on three different title teams this season, which means counting his 2019 Finals win and performance last year against a banged up Warriors group. Nobody batted an eye at that.
Even the five-month layoff case has its flaws. We don’t hold James’ first Miami title in a state of flux because the season was only 66 games instead of 82. Nobody says that Tim Duncan has only four rings instead of five because of the 50-game 1998-99 season.
It’s hard to say whether 16 games less or 32 games less (in the case of 98-99) equals five months of rest. There’s no science to drill that down. Plus, everything else going on throughout the 2020 season and its playoffs could make the mental task of this title more grueling, completely negating the positive effect of the five month layoff.
In the end, we should evaluate the injury what-if from Miami’s point of view, not the Lakers. We – and Heat fans – will always fall back on “If they were healthy in the 2020 Finals”, which is in the same regard that Cavaliers fans hold 2015 in and Warriors fans hold 2019. Instead of saying that the Lakers got lucky, say the Heat got unlucky. No matter what, arguing about it doesn’t matter. James still isn’t the GOAT quite yet. But he’s much closer than anyone on the Michael Jordan bandwagon would ever hope he’d be, and soon, it’s going to become undeniable.