For nine of the last 10 years, the NBA Finals have included LeBron James. For four years, it was with the Miami Heat. For the next four, it was with the Cleveland Cavaliers. And this one, after a year’s hiatus, is with the Lakers.
So what did James do during last year’s Finals, when his team didn’t make the playoffs?
“It all depends what game you were talking about,” James said. “There were a couple games where I was at home. There was one or two games where I was in Cabo and a couple games where I was at a hookah lounge during the Finals last year. That's the truth. I wasn't smoking hookah, but I was there.”
Wherever he was, the game was always on somehow.
“I watched every single minute of the games until they stopped,” James said. “I actually watched every single postseason game last year. … Part of me, I'm just a fan of the game. I love the sport. I love the competitive nature. I love the playoffs. And then, also, of saying like, 'Oh, I wish I was in this moment, what would I have done at that moment? What play would I have made in that moment if I was out there?' So yes, I didn't miss a game. I didn't miss one game. Even on vacation, I didn't miss a game.
“My wife didn't like it, but she'll be OK.”
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s game:
1. James is still the master of closeout games. He has said this before during the playoffs but did so again on Saturday. When he enters a closeout game, he tries to have a mindset that is as desperate as that of his opponent facing elimination. Matching that desperation allows James to avoid the complacency some teams may face when they’re in comfortable closeout situations.
2. It won’t be the week of rest they had been getting, but the Lakers have a few days to heal before the NBA Finals begin. That will be a much-needed break for all of them, especially Anthony Davis, who appeared to limp Saturday on the ankle he injured Thursday. Game 1 of the NBA Finals will be Wednesday if the Miami Heat eliminates the Boston Celtics on Sunday evening. If there is a Game 7 on Tuesday, the Finals start Friday.
3. Lakers coach Frank Vogel gave the Lakers the defensive identity that they carried throughout the season. Davis described what made his defensive coaching so effective. “He's been great,” Davis said. “He's always, as he calls it, changing up the pitches. We never give a steady diet of what we are doing on defense. We change it up and give different looks, throw different looks out there, and he's a defensive-minded coach and all about defensive rating and making sure our defense is better and better every game.” Their focus on defense has meant the Lakers aren’t reliant on whether their shots fall.
4. In many of his news conferences while in the bubble, Nuggets coach Mike Malone has worn a black shirt with white lettering that says, “Justice for Elijah McClain.” He spoke about that Saturday night as he prepared to head home. “I wear this for Elijah McClain's parents, Sheneen McClain, Lawayne Mosley, all of his family, all of his loved ones. … Just because we're done here, now we go back to our respective market in our cities. That's where the fight has to continue, and getting involved as much as possible. I think about this case, and the reason I wear this shirt is because, no disrespect to the countless others who have been killed, but this is in our backyard, and I feel a responsibility to bring light to it because I don't think Elijah McClain's name is mentioned enough. I don't think enough people are talking about it. At the end of the day, what we want, the shirt says it all, we want justice. He was a 23-year-old man walking back from the store with headphones on with an iced tea in his bag and somebody called the cops because he was acting suspicious. Being black isn't suspicious. So, all these types of things are just — we have had enough. Everybody's had enough. So, if I can wear a shirt, if I can speak on it to help to bring about a little bit of change, that's the least I could do.”
5. It’s been clear all season that Alex Caruso would be a big part of why the Lakers can win a championship. He has proved his importance repeatedly during this playoff run. On Saturday it was with a performance that included 11 points and a plus/minus rating of plus-16. Caruso’s impact was felt especially on defense.