The unlikely role players who have the Lakers one win away from a return to glory

These Los Angeles Lakers will not go down in NBA lore or even enter the pantheon of greatest single-season championship teams, despite their names being ready to be etched on that sparkling gold trophy.

It would be hard to see these Lakers beating the best of the recent Golden State Warriors, a squad with similar historic talents at the top but far more dependable role players in between. They’re not quite a one-year wonder, like the 2006 Miami Heat featuring a slowing-down Shaquille O’Neal and rising Dwyane Wade, but likely won’t be mentioned among the great teams we’ve seen in the last two decades.

The reason they closed to within 48 minutes of restoring the franchise to expected glory, though, is the players whose mere presence will keep them from entering that particular upper room. But luckily for the likes of Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, they don’t have to play against the ghosts of Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant, or Wade and Chris Bosh, or a prime Shaq. Their opponents are these scrappy Miami Heat in this NBA bubble, where the wins count the same and the first to 16 gets to go home as champion.

And the Lakers don’t get this 102-96 Game 4 win on Tuesday night without those two making those plays late.

Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat dribbles against Rajon Rondo #9 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half in Game Three of the 2020 NBA Finals
Rajon Rondo has been a key veteran player off the bench for the Los Angeles Lakers. (Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Caldwell-Pope is a soft-spoken, hard-playing type who understands his role on this team is to defend, run hard and take advantage of limited opportunities. He likely also knows his role with Laker fans has been the whipping boy, trading turns with Kyle Kuzma the last few seasons, before fortunes turned with two fellow Klutch Sports clients, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Rondo is used to succeeding in unconventional ways, defying the raw numbers, the deep analytics and even reasonably raised expectations from those who’ve bought into the “Playoff Rondo” mantra.

They are chief reasons these Lakers aren’t feared, and so-called weak-spot teams like the Denver Nuggets or Houston Rockets or Los Angeles Clippers believed they could exploit them in a playoff series. Chief reasons why teams in the Western Conference won’t run away and hide this offseason when it’s time to reassess and load up for the 2020-21 season, for a shot at the presumptive defending champions.

Often times, the overused phrase “self check” is blurted out when looking at the two, with scouting reports centered around “let them beat you” littering locker rooms all season in every environment.

But for as much as Davis had his first Finals Horry moment with a 3-point dagger to put his team up nine with 37 seconds left, the Lakers wouldn’t have been in position to take this 3-1 advantage without the two maligned teammates tuning out the season-long noise and playing to their personal ceilings. Multiple times Caldwell-Pope made like the Road Runner in setting up Davis for easy dunks, or more critically, sprinting to the corner for a triple off a sure James pass with 2:58, followed by a layup with the shot clock running down as Jimmy Butler wisely glued himself to James as opposed to helping.

That quick swing gave the Lakers a 95-88 lead with 2:02 left, which in usual bubble circumstances, could’ve disappeared in a flash but in this grimy Finals game was decisive.

“Whoever is out on the floor with me, I believe can make plays, and tonight was a case in point of KCP,” James said. “Stays ready. He works on his craft.”

Miami later again played the percentages with Rondo, someone willing to pass up an open layup in order to set up a teammate, but he kept the Heat at bay with an aggressive move that goes against his usual tendencies.

“Rajon is a huge part of what we do,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “I have a tremendous amount of trust in his abilities, especially in this atmosphere, this deep into the playoffs when the games mean so much.”

The LeBron James-Anthony Davis combo is unassailable and will stand up alongside Magic and Kareem, and Shaq and Kobe when it’s all over. The team-up is why the Lakers have returned to prominence and will be in the championship conversation for as long as they’re physically able.

But picking out dependable Lakers after those two can produce five different answers from five of the most seasoned and optimistic Lakers observers. The inorganic way this team was built leaves the door open to doubt in moments when James and Davis aren’t physically overwhelming opponents.

They go through bouts of inactivity, watching James pound the ball into dust and in need of one more shot creator. They have cold spells that rival Milwaukee winters, snapping out of it before things get dire.

A perfect team of perfect stars, they are not.

Davis found himself on the floor more than a clumsy figure skater in Game 4, trying to shut off Butler’s water and make Miami’s offense think a little more than react to what it saw in Game 3.

The graceful game he usually plays wasn’t to be found, so even he earned some grimy stripes in gutting this one out.

“He's a big shot-maker late in the shot clock, early in the shot clock, fourth quarter, first quarter, everything in between,” James said of Davis. “Just a big-time play, big-time moment not only for AD but for our ballclub and our franchise.”

James doesn’t have much more to achieve in his career. Wherever he sits on your Mount Rushmore isn’t likely to change regardless of how the next few years play out, and he would be wise to accept that no narrative will pull anyone from their non-neutral corners.

But he is taking more of a challenge in chasing perfection, and taking a level of excitement from the game-to-game chess battles of adjustments that goes on. After all, his slogan is “Strive for greatness,” and he’s never done a good job of hiding his annoyances with teammates over mixups or screw-ups.

LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers after drawing a foul during the fourth quarter against the Miami Heat in Game Four of the 2020 NBA Finals
Being great in Game 4 wasn't on the table for LeBron James. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“You never stop striving to be perfect or be great. And you know that a perfect game is not going to happen,” James said. “Every game has its own adjustments and things of that nature, and tonight was one of those games where we had to win on the defensive end and make some timely shots.”

Being great for James wasn’t on the table, despite the numbers (28 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists) claiming it was a stellar performance. James turned it over six times and when it looked like he had the Heat on the ropes, with momentum swings he started to exert in the third and fourth quarters, he couldn’t put them away.

The Heat were making him think a split-second longer than he wanted to, a testament to James’ supercomputer and Miami’s coaching brain trust that had this series on the verge of being tied.

James just needed to steer the ship or get out of the way when it mattered most to win the game.

It wasn’t the Laker greats who pushed the Lakers to greatness, but players who had great moments.

And great moments add up to a ring.

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