Column: Is tonight the night the Lakers return to glory and win NBA title?
The confetti is bundled. The tears are welling. The Larry O’Brien is waiting.
A city creeps to the end of couches. A team battles to the edge of euphoria. A franchise treads toward the precipice of history.
Hang on, Los Angeles, all heaven is about to break loose.
The stage is set. The mission is clear. The moment is now.
The Lakers are leading three games to one, requiring but one more win for a title, and it should be a lock. Only one team in NBA history has come back from such a deficit to win an NBA Finals, and that team had LeBron James, who now plays for the Lakers, and who has won 16 of his last 17 close-out games.
It is the hope of Lakers star LeBron James that NBA players continue to speak out about social injustice and police brutality once the season is over.
The Lakers are healthy, the Heat are not. The Lakers are hyped, the Heat looked cooked. The Lakers are even dressed for success, as they will take the court at the AdventHealth Arena near Orlando wearing the Kobe Bryant-designed Black Mamba snakeskin uniforms. They are 4-0 in the playoffs in the Mambas; they believe something spiritual is happening here, and who are we to argue?
“Every time we lose in the jerseys, we feel like we’ve let him down, and we don’t want to do that,” Anthony Davis said Thursday, later adding: “But if we come in and do the things we’re supposed to do … then we can remain undefeated and close this thing out and make this moment even more special.”
At first glance, it is a moment that feels predestined, what with the NBA’s most glamorous franchise being led by two of the league’s top five players. The Lakers should be here, right? The Lakers were always going to be here, true?
Wrong. Don’t be fooled. It is a wonder the Lakers are here. It is a minor miracle that the Lakers are here. This title will mark not an expected coronation but a compelling comeback, the greatest offensive rebound in franchise history, a crowning achievement of resilience and calm in the wake of chaos and dysfunction.
The road to the championship has actually been a broken one that began 19 months ago amid a giant pothole in a Staples Center hallway.
This journey started when Magic Johnson quit.
Who can forget that April night before the 2019 Lakers’ season finale when Johnson stood against a wall and stunningly resigned because of a front office feud with general manager Rob Pelinka?
Magic Johnson announces he’s stepping down as Lakers’ president of basketball operations.
“What I didn’t like was the backstabbing and whispering. … I didn’t like a lot of things that went on that didn’t have to go on,” he said.
Afterward, the media sought out LeBron James for a response but he scurried into the night without talking, illuminating another problem. A month earlier, he had been booed on the night he passed Michael Jordan to move into fourth on the league’s all-time scoring list. His first season had been a disaster. He had been distant, detached, and failed to connect with a city that viewed him as a stranger.
“What I’ve learned being a Laker is that the Laker faithful don’t give a damn what you’ve done before,” James said Thursday. “You’ve got to do it as a Laker, and then they respect you.”
“Luke Walton, you lucky dog,” it was written here.
Then it got worse. The much-maligned Pelinka was quietly promoted to Johnson’s chair without a search, and his top coaching choice, Tyronn Lue, turned him down.
“Soak in the notion that Showtime is turning toxic,” it was written here.
When Pelinka finally did find a head coach who would take the job, the criticism was universal for a guy who recently lost more games than Walton and whose teams had lost to James in three consecutive playoffs.
“No disrespect to Frank Vogel but … whaaaat?” it was written here.
It got worse. It got crazier. Vogel’s introductory news conference occurred hours after Magic Johnson appeared on an ESPN talk show and burned the organization to the ground. Johnson ripped the front office for having too many voices and cited Pelinka as the alleged backstabber.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel’s “stay in the moment” approach has brought his team to the threshold of an NBA championship.
“If you’re going to talk betrayal, it’s only with Rob,” Johnson said.
Amid the cacophony, Vogel gamely stood his ground and said, “You’re going to be happy with the product we put on the floor this year and where we’re going as an organization, you really are.”
Bystanders heard this and literally laughed. Who was this guy, and how could anyone believe him?
A month later, Pelinka pulled off the big trade for Anthony Davis and still there were murmurings. The Lakers needed a third star; they needed Kawhi Leonard, yet they were still such a front-office mess, how could Pelinka convince him to come? And if he didn’t come, could Pelinka be trusted to find the right role players to build around his new big two?
“The future of the franchise depends on Pelinka not screwing it up again,” it was written here.
Through it all, owner Jeanie Buss was conspicuously quiet. There were whispers that her friend Linda Rambis was really running the organization. There were thoughts that she was out of touch. When Buss did emerge once to speak publicly, she outraged fans by acting as if nothing was wrong.
Her franchise was, “in a really good place,” she said to raised eyebrows and covered mouths.
Then, on a Friday night in July, perceptions about her team hit rock bottom when the Clippers acquired two players who had snubbed the Lakers — Leonard and Paul George.
“How on earth did the Lakers blow this?” it was written here.
They did blow it. They had blown it. Throughout the summer of 2019, the Lakers front office had far more turnovers than assists.
LeBron James was a no-show for the first half of Game 4 against the Miami Heat, but his stardom and leadership emerged when the Lakers needed it most.
But somehow, some way, they figured it out. Collectively, it seems, they finally realized and lived up to the great responsibility of being a Laker.
The brand won. The history won. The magic returned.
James got his act together. Tweeting out the words “Washed King,” James used his debut-season criticism as fuel and entered his second year here as a man with a purpose.
“There was a lot of conversations going on this summer and I just … I am very motivated,” James said on media day.
Pelinka got his act together. Regrouping after losing Leonard, he surrounded James and Davis with the smart and savvy Rajon Rondo, Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. He took a chance on Dwight Howard and it worked. He bought out the contract of Markieff Morris at midseason and it worked. That Pelinka finished seventh in the executive of the year voting with just one first-place vote is just nuts, but reveals just how badly his reputation had taken a beating.
“I know and the entire organization knows the work he’s put in to put this team together … to compete for a championship and to be one win away,” Davis said.
Frank Vogel turned out to be the perfect coach for this team — smart, studious and defense-minded withzero visible ego. He didn’t care that people initially thought assistant Jason Kidd was going to coach the team. He doesn’t mind that people still think James coaches the team. He knows he’s the boss. Everyone knows he’s the boss. Vogel quietly but forcefully directed his star-filled group to look in the mirror, be accountable, and play together. They did. They survived the shutdown and the bubble better than anyone because of the chemistry Vogel created.
That will all be on display Friday as the broken road finally comes together to carry this team to the most appropriate, yet most unlikely, of championships for a team that has finally rediscovered its soul.
Hang on, Los Angeles, all Lakers are about to break loose.
Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.
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