MIAMI, USA, Sept 28 – LeBron James arrived in Los Angeles vowing to restore the Lakers to NBA glory, and “King James” plans to make good on that promise.
His 38-point triple-double propelled the Lakers to victory over the Denver Nuggets in game five of the Western Conference finals and back into the NBA championship series for a record 32nd time.
“This is what I came here for,” James said. “I heard all the conversations and everything that was said about why did I decide to come to LA (that) the reason I came to LA, it was not about basketball.
“All those conversations, just naysayers and things of that nature. I understood that, with the season I had last year and my injury, it just gave them more sticks and more wood to throw in the fire to continue to say the things that they would say about me.
“But it never stopped my journey and never stopped my mindset and never stopped my goal.”
The Lakers were floundering when James arrived in 2018.
They hadn’t reached the NBA Finals since 2010 — when they secured the most recent of their 16 championships.
In the five seasons before James opted for Los Angeles as a free agent, the Lakers won the fewest games in the NBA.
James had reached eight consecutive finals, winning NBA titles in 2012 and 2013 with Miami and 2016 with Cleveland.
But his first season didn’t go according to the Hollywood script. A groin strain James suffered in December of 2018 lingered, he missed 27 games and the Lakers missed the playoffs for just the third time in his career.
Now he’s in the finals with a third team, just the fourth player to reach the championship series for a 10th time, joining Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (10) and Sam Jones (11) and Bill Russell (12) of Boston Celtics of the 1950s-60s.
James was ready to acknowledge the moment while already looking ahead.
“Job not done,” he tweeted, having told a television interviewer as the confetti fell in the quarantine bubble in Orlando, Florida: “I’ve got to get it done.”
James had scored 16 points in the fourth quarter against Denver on Saturday, squashing any hopes the Nuggets harbored of mounting the kind of miraculous comebacks they produced in each of their first two playoff series.
“You can’t tell me that LeBron James is not the MVP of the league with a 38-16-10 performance tonight to lead the @Lakers to the NBA Finals!” Lakers icon Magic Johnson tweeted, reviving the debate over the award given to Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo — whose Bucks were ousted in the Eastern Conference semi-finals by Miami.
– Wide shoulders –
“My teammates said bring us home, and it’s my responsibility to try to make the right plays and do the right things out on the floor to help us win ball games,” he said.
“We have a few guys on our team that have never been to the finals before. So I took that responsibility as well. And my shoulders are wide enough to carry a lot of loads.”
They have had to since he arrived in Los Angeles. James, who has never fought shy of social activism, has been vocal as protests against racial injustice and police brutality have swept across the United States this year.
In a season turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lakers have coped bearing the additional sadness of the death of team great Kobe Bryant, who was killed along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash in January.
But as he sat quietly on the court amid Saturday’s post-game celebrations, James was looking ahead more than he was looking back, pondering the Lakers’ potential Eastern Conference foe in the finals.
A finals against the Miami Heat would pit James against a team where he once starred, while a matchup with Boston will pit the Lakers against a Celtics team whose record of 17 NBA titles they are trying to match.
“Boston had a few moments in my head, and Miami had a few moments in my head as well,” James said. “Whoever wins that series and how challenging that’s going to be.
As he headed to the locker room with teammate Anthony Davis — whose star-quality skills have been rewarded with a trip the finals for a first time after his years of frustration in New Orleans — James was already counseling his teammates on exactly where they stand.
“One step closer to the goal,” he said.