In the best of times, you make the best of your circumstances. That’s what makes it the best: You take an opportunity or a challenge and simply make your moment. Feels good, feels worthwhile, feels so alive.
It’s possible to do all that even in what can be viewed as the worst of times. A pandemic. Social injustice. Tragic turns.
From the beginning of this, the NBA hatching this plan to restart the season was about making the best of that worst. And as we near the end of this, we better understand how the people who exit the cocoon as champions won’t just be the ones who played great basketball—they will have truly made the most of their time isolated in the NBA’s campus in every way.
The Lakers and Heat began the NBA Finals on Wednesday, their 85th consecutive day away from the rest of the world. This is a tale of two cities—glam vacation destinations and frequent Super Bowl hosts—finally meeting in a sports title round for the first time … with everyone instead being bound to a bubble.
Then the Lakers fell behind early. Didn’t look fast or sharp. Went down by 13 points.
They just shook it off. Didn’t panic. Anthony Davis just kept playing hard. Rajon Rondo deftly reset the table the way he has throughout the playoffs.
In keeping with the way this team has made the most of difficult moments, the Lakers scored 75 of the next 105 points in the game. That means that the Lakers beat the Heat by two full points every minute of the game for the next 22 minutes.
It was stunning. Since the NBA began tracking play-by-play in 1997, no team had ever trailed by double digits but then led by double digits at the end of the first half in the Finals. Almost symbolic of how taxing this whole run has been, Miami’s three best players—Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic—wound up all visibly hurting with injuries as Game 1 wore on.
The Lakers’ victory served as a powerful demonstration of driven-from-within passion and community poise, the intangibles that have so majorly helped the Lakers harmonize throughout this longest road trip in basketball history.
“However many days it is, it feels like five years—so it really doesn’t matter,” LeBron James had said Tuesday. Then he added: “I’ve been as locked in as I’ve ever been in my career.”
Said Kyle Kuzma: “We kind of came here with one goal: to win the championship. So guys were already motivated. Obviously tough days here, but we’ve got each other here. And we’re a family. We’re all brothers. We all talk to each other every day, hang out with each other, and make this experience fun.”
It’s like the old quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln reminds us: Most folks are as happy as they make their minds up to be.
Some people wondered if Davis was ready for big-game pressures. He’s a guy who openly admits feeling nervous before series-opening tip-offs. He had previously won only one playoff series in his career.
Well, the Lakers are now 13-3 with Davis—a .813 winning playoff percentage. (As prolific as the Lakers’ past playoff successes are, their NBA-best .597 is still not .813!) In his first time on the Finals stage, he again played his game, showing his size, skill and motor with 34 points, nine rebounds, five assists, three blocks and just one turnover.
Consider this: The all-time leader in points per playoff game, minimum 25 games played, is Michael Jordan at 33.4. Now holding down second place in NBA history: Davis at 29.8.
Davis was, as the previous stat shows, highly productive in his previous playoff games with New Orleans, even if those were early round matchups without national or international fanfare.
In a weird way, Davis has found solace in how impossible it is for these huge, late-playoff games to feel too different. They don’t feel hyper-publicized while everyone remains in this bubble.
“You see the [NBA Finals] decal on the floor,” Davis said after Game 1. “You see all the people in the [virtual] stands, essentially. You see the patch on the back of your jersey, the patch on the side of your warmups. You kind of see that it’s a Finals game.
“But once you go out there and start playing, I don’t think the fans are allowed to make any noise, so it feels like a regular game in the bubble—even though that pressure of the Finals is still there. So I think it makes it a lot easier, especially for our guys to just go out there and play. At Staples [Center], it would have been a lot crazier, just playing in front of your home fans and sharing these moments with them. I think just being here, it definitely calmed the nerves a lot faster.”
If you read that closely, you understand that while Davis can miss the support or energy provided by outside influences, he chooses to focus on the positive of extra serenity that can be found here.
It helps him maximize his love for the game and determination to become a champion.
“For some guys it was tough for them to be here for a long time,” Davis said. “You kind of figure out the ones who really love the game and just want to win and just want to play basketball. A lot of guys on our team loved it. Loved it here because we had no distractions. All we’ve got to do is play basketball.
“You have no distractions. You don’t have to worry about nothing else that’s going on in the world and just play. Then when you're outside of the bubble, you’ve got a million different things coming at you.”
There’s no questioning how comfortable Davis has looked in the restart. It actually makes total sense, because he’s just the sort of chill-with-teammates dude who has always reveled in quality time with the group.
He mentioned Thursday how the connections have strengthened during all this time: “Everyone’s confidence is very high. Guys trust each other more. Guys are locked in more. It all ties together when you get to this stage.”
He cited James, Rondo, Jared Dudley and Markieff Morris as teammates who have invested deeply in ensuring Davis dons the cape and is the superhero he can be, soaring throughout the bubble’s airspace.
It has, Davis said, encouraged him to “play with the swag that you know that you have.”
There are 92 family members, including Davis’ parents, now in attendance—after going through the requisite quarantine—to watch the rest of the Finals, according the NBA. For the Lakers, of course it’s a wonderful boost.
In another sense, it’s tough for anyone who wasn’t there when the Lakers played the Clippers in the Oct. 30 restart opener—with more than three million followers added to the NBA’s social accounts from then till now, the league helping brighten the world outside—to be a real part of the crew.
“We just try to find joy in the small things that we have here,” Dwight Howard said. “During this time there are a lot of reasons we could be depressed, could be down, sad about just being here while there is a pandemic going on. But we all understand what the mission is.”
Howard turned to reading as a personal outlet with more time on his hands. Yet it’s clear what the first option in this offense is.
“Throughout this whole process,” he said, “all of us have developed really some lifetime friendships and bonds with people here in the bubble that we can carry on forever.”
Rondo, who left the NBA campus three days into it when he fractured his right thumb, has more than regained his standing on the team. And he cherishes how it feels more than ever.
“Me coming back into the bubble made me more appreciative of the time being with my teammates, understanding that camaraderie is big in this type of game that we play,” Rondo said. “So, developing chemistry early on, it kind of became natural. Guys aren’t forced to be around each other. We just kind of naturally gravitate toward each other.“
Lakers vice president and general manager Rob Pelinka has been proactive in coming up with creative ways to engage and uplift, breeding a healthy community on site.
But Lakers head coach Frank Vogel noted: “It’s important to get out of your room in this environment, the bubble. Obviously when your captains, LeBron and Anthony, are going to be at every sort of team event we have, a pool party or barbecue or anything like that that we have, or eating in the team meal room with teammates, I think that is infectious to the group in terms of guys wanting to be together and leaning on each other in this unique situation.”
Worth noting is that LeBron and Anthony—and almost everyone else—is physically healthy, too. The Lakers went from seeing Denver’s Jamal Murray struggling physically at the end of the Western Conference Finals to Miami’s Adebayo and Dragic now being listed as doubtful for Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Friday.
Pelinka committed from the beginning to overall player wellness, with Judy Seto, Nina Hsieh, Mike Mancias, Jon Ishop and Stacey Robinson serving in starring roles on the Lakers’ training staff after no traditional buildup to this competition. At the time, Pelinka had said: “This particular experience in Orlando, I think so much of the weight of this is going to shift to the sports performance staff. And we have a great one.”
It again has been, with some luck to date, the Lakers making the best of a challenging situation.
Nearly three months in, they have done what they can do choose joy, which has been a daunting task for us all during this time.
"2020 has been crazy,” Howard said, “but it has also been one the best years of my life.
“Hopefully, we can top it off with a great championship. We’re looking forward to Game 2 and coming out with some more intensity and putting the pressure on the Heat.”
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Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views
expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the
Los Angeles Lakers.
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