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In this historic year, the NBA might have preferred to have added another chapter to the legendary Lakers-Celtics rivalry that has been so rewarding for the league and its fans.
But Lakers vs. Heat, which starts Wednesday night, isn’t too shabby either and it’s a rivalry also ripe with subplots.
As he usually is, LeBron James is at the centre of much of the juicy stuff.
He led the Heat to consecutive championships after stunningly bolting Cleveland to form a super team with close friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and four Finals appearances in all. His decision to head to Miami strengthened the Heat franchise substantially and temporarily made the Heat one of the most-followed teams in all of sports.
Then James threw another curve ball, taking his talents from South Beach back to Ohio, ruffling quite a few feathers in the process. If you listen to plugged-in reporters like ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, who has covered James since his high school days in Akron, Heat big boss Pat Riley was the most aggrieved by the divorce and it took years for some of the ice to thaw. Riley reportedly thought James was turning his back on a dynasty and at least a couple more titles by leaving and was taking the easy route by bailing after the Heat got crushed by the San Antonio Spurs in five games in 2014.
Windhorst said this week on his podcast that a congratulatory text from Riley to James after LeBron led Cleveland to a long-awaited championship in 2016 went unanswered.
But things change. Back in May, Riley said on a local affiliate that James was “maybe the greatest player of all-time” and at media day on Tuesday, James heaped praise of his own on Riley, who is now into the Finals for a sixth decade as a player, coach and executive.
“When I hear Pat Riley, I think about one of the greatest minds probably this game has ever had,” James said, crushing the spirit of hundreds of journalists hoping the “feud” would be reignited.
“This league is not the same without Riles. He’s a great guy, great motivator, someone that just knows what it takes to win.”
James also wouldn’t play ball when asked if winning against Miami would be extra special.
“Absolutely not. It’s no extra meaning to winning a championship, no matter who you’re playing against. It’s already hard enough to even reach the Finals, to be in this position. If you’re able to become victorious out of the Finals, it doesn’t matter who it’s against,” James said.
Long before James exited Miami, there was another famous breakup involving Riley, who bailed despite having deep Lakers connections.
Riley had been a part of the 1972 NBA champion Lakers, a broadcaster with the team and, most famously, the man who conducted the Magic Johnson-led Showtime Era, coaching the Lakers to four titles in the 1980s. But after a 63-win season that ended in a playoff collapse against Phoenix, it was clear the hard-nosed Riley was no longer happy or a fit and he walked away to do TV work before resurfacing as the face of the New York Knicks.
Riley would later leave the Knicks (after leading them just short of a title) for the future arch-rival Heat in another stunner that featured New York charging Miami with tampering. Riley’s been the head honcho in South Florida ever since.
In his role as chief executive, Riley engineered the blockbuster trade that altered the course of both the Lakers and the Heat, when he brought Shaquille O’Neal to town, splitting up Shaq’s partnership with Kobe Bryant. O’Neal and Wade would team to bring Miami its first championship, while the Lakers stumbled, going three straight seasons without getting out of the first round before reaching the Finals three straight years, winning the final two appearances, the last by the Lakers until this season.
Talk about an asterisk on this season at your peril. The players involved definitely won’t buy into any talk that this is an easier championship than others because there was no travel and no hostile crowds to navigate through.
“It’s probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as far as a professional, as far as committing to something and actually making it through,” James said Tuesday of the bubble as a whole.
“But I knew when I was coming what we were coming here for. I would be lying if I sat up here and knew that everything inside the bubble, the toll that it would take on your mind and your body and everything else, because it’s been extremely tough.”
Superstar teammate Anthony Davis agreed.
“I think this one is going to be a tough one. People said it’s going to be the toughest championship in NBA history from a mental standpoint just because of the circumstances,” Davis said.
If Miami wins the title, a pair of Canadians will get rings. Veteran centre Kelly Olynyk, who grew up in both Kamloops, B.C., and Toronto and rookie Kyle Alexander, a rookie from Toronto who got into two games this season.
Canadians have appeared in the Finals for 10 seasons in a row now, with Chris Boucher (Montreal) winning with the Raptors last season, Tristan Thompson (Brampton) in 2016 with Cleveland, Cory Joseph (Pickering) in 2014 with San Antonio and Joel Anthony (Montreal) in 2012 and 2013 with Miami.
AROUND THE RIM
Davis joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, O’Neal and Bryant as the only Lakers to average 30 points on 50% shooting in a conference final … James joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to win MVP with one franchise and also face them in the Finals … If the series goes seven games, James will tie Abdul-Jabbar for third in career Finals games played (only Bill Russell and Sam Jones have played more). Six games would tie him with Jerry West for fourth. James will tie Magic Johnson in appearances on Wednesday, at 50 … Tyler Herro will become the first player born in the 2000s to play in the NBA Finals. Feel old yet? … Doc Rivers led the Clippers to the fifth-best regular season winning percentage since 2013-14, but after one of the most remarkable collapses we’ve seen in years, Los Angeles let him go. As they always say, you can’t fire the players, so you fire the coach. Rivers is huge on chemistry, but that team had next to none.
DANNY GREEN LOOKING TO MAKE HISTORY WITH LEBRON
Because LeBron James is the megastar that he is, his pursuit of an NBA title with a third franchise gets most of the attention, but don’t forget that Danny Green would join him in that accomplishment should Los Angeles beat Miami. Only Robert Horry and John Salley have done that before.
Green bested James and the Heat as a member of the San Antonio Spurs (while also falling to Miami a year earlier) and then helped Toronto to its first championship last season.
During NBA Finals media day on Tuesday, Green was asked to reflect on his Raptors experience and closing out Golden State.
“Yeah, I mean, seems like — it was year and a half ago,” Green said.
“We celebrated as a group. I like the fact that we won on the road, because we had to do it together as an organization and it was a lot fun.”
Green said he hasn’t allowed himself to think about what winning in the NBA’s Orlando bubble would be like and how it would compare to past celebrations though.
“We haven’t won anything yet. I’m not going to count my eggs before they hatch or celebrate and party before the work is done,” he said.
“We still have four more games to win, and then when we cross that bridge.”
QUALITY COACHING STAFFS SQUARE OFF
The coaching battle in this series presents as a mismatch, but while Erik Spoelstra might be the NBA’s premier bench boss, or certainly belongs in the Top 3 or 4, that statement might be a bit too general.
After all, Los Angeles has a staff consisting not only of Frank Vogel, who finished one spot behind Spoelstra’s fourth place in coach of the year voting this season, but also respected 66-year-old NBA lifer Lionel Hollins, Hall of Famer Jason Kidd and Phil Handy, who recently won titles with Toronto and Cleveland.
The Lakers have built a strong staff around Vogel, who guided the Lakers to a .732 winning percentage in his first season with the club.
Vogel was 31-30 in the playoffs with Indiana before going 12-3 with Los Angeles so far. Spoelstra was 71-47 with two titles with Miami before also starting these playoffs 12-3 this year.
Spoelstra was also an assistant coach when Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade led the Heat to the franchise’s first title and only Gregg Popovich has been coaching the same team longer than Spoelstra, who took over in April of 2008 after working his way up for over a decade with the organization.
BAM! MIAMI HAS A NEW STAR
Miami has some household names on its roster.
Jimmy Butler, the perennial all-star forward; Andre Iguodala, the 16-year veteran who will be playing in his sixth NBA Finals in a row; Goran Dragic has been a good player for over a decade now; Kendrick Nunn finished second in rookie of the year voting and Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson have had breakout rookie seasons, but it’s Bam Adebayo that might be the club’s top player.
Adebayo led Miami in five categories — points, rebounds, assists and steals per game, and field goal percentage (60.8%) — in the conference final against Boston.
After playing nearly exclusively as a centre over his first two seasons in the league, Adebayo spent 57% of this regular season at power forward (according to basketball-reference.com), before moving back to centre for all but 5% of his minutes in the playoffs.
How many centres have you ever seen put up the varied numbers Adebayo just did against Boston? Heck, how many big men, period, have accomplished that?
Draymond Green could do a lot of what Adebayo does, but he couldn’t score points the way Adebayo already has shown he can. And unlike Green, Adebayo doesn’t even try to hoist up three-pointers at this point of his career (and it’s not because he has poor form, Adebayo shot 91% from the free-throw line against Milwaukee).
The Marc Gasol of four years ago could do some of the things Adebayo does, but Miami’s star-in-waiting is far more athletic and explosive.
League MVP Giannis Antetokoumpo might be Adebayo’s closest comparable. Adebayo reminded everyone of the Greek Freak when he won Game 1 with a spectacular block on Boston superstar Jayson Tatum’s late dunk attempt.
He then emphatically closed out the Celtics with a monster dunk.
Adebayo’s made a name for himself this season, but now he gets a chance to show what he can do on a world-wide scale (the NBA says the Finals will reach people in 215 countries).
3 — Teams seeded five or lower to advance to the NBA Finals like the Heat (first since Knicks in 1999).
28.2 — Points per game by LeBron James in 49 NBA Finals games. Only eight players have averaged more. James also ranks ninth in Finals assists per game.
32 — Finals appearances by the Lakers, as many as the next two franchises with the most appearances combined (Boston, 21, Golden State, 11).
27 — NBA franchises have fewer Finals appearances than the 10 LeBron James has reached. Only Bill Russell (12 Finals) and Sam Jones (11) have more. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also has 10.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020