On Friday, he stands on the brink of delivering the franchise its 17th championship. The Los Angeles Lakers face the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the NBA Finals with a chance for James to bolster his legacy in LA during a season dedicated to Bryant’s memory.
They’ll do so while wearing Black Mamba uniforms in honor of Bryant.
Can Heat mount a Game 5 challenge?
The Heat are battered and outmatched against a team sporting two first-team All-NBA players in James and Anthony Davis. Miami has none, and starting point guard Goran Dragic remains listed as doubtful with the torn plantar fascia in his left foot that knocked him out of Game 1.
Heat need greatness again from Butler
But they have a determined Jimmy Butler, who’s stepped up his game in the playoffs from his third-team All-NBA effort during the regular season. His 40-point Game 3 triple-double in Miami’s only Finals win stands as one of the greatest performances in Finals history.
They have a coach built for this moment. Anybody who discounted Erik Spoelstra’s two NBA championship because he won them with James and Dwyane Wade should be more than convinced of his bonafides by this run to the Finals from the No. 5 seed.
“Heat culture” might induce eye rolls. But it’s a reputation that’s been well-earned in Spoelstra’s tenure as Pat Riley’s hand-picked successor on the Miami bench.
This is not to suggest that Miami should be expected to pull off the Game 5 upset. No, this is set up as a Lakers coronation, and all signs point to James and Davis ensuring that it will be.
Are Black Mamba jerseys a slight?
But the Heat — even shorthanded — are no pushovers. Far from it. And with Butler snarling as the team’s emotional leader, they absolutely should be expected to put up a fight in a spot where many teams would be content to roll over.
The Lakers switched their uniform plans for Friday. The Black Mamba jerseys — which they have never lost while wearing — were originally slated for Game 7. That they swapped them for Game 5 can certainly be read as presumptuous — and just the type of thing to feed Butler’s killer instinct.
High stakes for James and Davis
But James has a killer instinct of his own. And more talent. And more talent around him. And plenty of motivation. His legacy is secure, but a fourth title and a championship with the Lakers will elevate his status even further.
Perhaps nobody is as motivated as Davis. While James is chasing LA glory and another notch in the GOAT debate with Michael Jordan, Davis is chasing his first NBA championship — and recognition as a truly great NBA player that has eluded him through seven seasons of team mediocrity with the New Orleans Pelicans.
If the Lakers win on Friday, one of them will win Finals MVP. For James, it would mark the first time a player won the honor with three different teams. For Davis, it would punctuate his arrival as the latest great Lakers big man.
For the Butler and the Heat? They’re not interested in either narrative.
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