Sports

The Lakers Are Champions, and It Feels Like It Was Inevitable. It Wasn’t.

LeBron James celebrates winning the 2020 NBA Finals with his arms raised, beside smiling, shirtless teammate J.R. Smith and other Lakers in the background.
The Lakers’ bubble never burst. Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

After 95 days inside the NBA’s Walt Disney World pandemic bubble, the Los Angeles Lakers are leaving as champions. Their 106-93 Game 6 win over the Miami Heat on Sunday was one of the more lopsided affairs in recent Finals memory, and it was all but over before they entered the locker room with a 28-point lead at halftime. While perfunctory, those closing quarters were still worth watching. Who knows when we’ll get to see professional basketball again?

The strangest NBA season in history ended not with a Mike Breen bang, but with a whimper. The Lakers had been the bigger, healthier, and more talented team all series, but Miami—and Jimmy Butler, in particular—deserve credit for staving off the inevitable by playing some legitimately inspiring basketball over six games. But a dramatic last stand is, by definition, the last stand, and the Heat were visibly exhausted from the moment the ball was tipped on Sunday. The Lakers ground them to dust, and the final scoreline, as well as Miami’s 44.3 percent field goal percentage, flattered the outmatched underdogs.

The Lakers had the good sense to save their best defensive performance of the bubble for this series-clinching win. Head coach Frank Vogel changed the starting lineup and replaced center Dwight Howard with guard Alex Caruso, but the downgrade in size didn’t diminish their ability to score at the rim or defend it. They hit their first 11 field goals in the lane, and Anthony Davis proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for the Heat whenever they dared to venture inside. They were a school of guppies going against a hydroelectric dam. Score one for civil engineering.

It’s only appropriate that a thoroughly weird Lakers team would win the oddest season on record. Of course Rajon Rondo was unstoppable and drove by Jimmy Butler at will during the first half. Of course Caruso had a game-high plus-minus of +20 in 32 minutes. Of course J.R. Smith gets another ring.

The Lakers remained the protagonists of a tumultuous 2020 NBA season. They were the Western Conference’s best regular season squad, even as the season ceased its attempts at being regular. The team mourned the death of Kobe Bryant in January. They lobbied for the games to continue, mid-pandemic, in the early summer, and were vocal participants during the August work stoppage to protest police violence.

But for all the bubble’s surprises, its championship was decided by basketball’s most consistently amazing superstar. LeBron James had the kind of game we’ve come to expect from him, which is to say a performance that defies belief. His 28-point, 14-rebound, 10-assist triple-double was a casual masterpiece, the Venus de Milo in sweatpants. There will be endless discussion on what this particular triumph *means* given its unusual circumstances, but his fourth Finals MVP was earned in the most normal way possible for LeBron: with him being the best player on the floor. (And, come to think of it, the best general manager, too.)

The future is as uncertain today as it was the day the Lakers stepped onto the Walt Disney World campus, and the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage throughout the country with little sign of stopping. The biggest difference the team is likely to notice as they exit the bubble is that they now have an NBA title to their names. It happened, even if no one was there to see it.

The Lakers’ performance on Sunday made it seem as if the ending to this truly unpredictable season was a foregone conclusion. But they were not the lone favorites at the start of the league’s grand experiment. The Bucks and Clippers were thrust into this very same environment and fizzled under the bright lights of Walt Disney World’s virtual fans. The Lakers didn’t waver. They survived nearly 100 days in the Most Magical Purgatory on Earth, a feat they undoubtedly will hope to never again achieve. Whatever their strategy was for staying sane inside a bubble, the secret to their on-court success was hardly a secret. In the end, they were the only ones who had LeBron.

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