If all goes according to plan for the Los Angeles Lakers and logic, Walt Disney World will experience a massive population exodus come Saturday morning. Suitcases will get packed, hotels will empty, airport limos will roll and the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy will be whisked to the West Coast and join 16 others that are neatly aligned in the Buss family office at the Lakers’ practice facility.
Yes, it didn’t matter how gnarly it looked for stretches in Game 4 of The Finals. How LeBron James kept fumbling the ball. How Anthony Davis splattered against the floor multiple times. How the Lakers found themselves in a two-point game with three minutes to play. And especially how they needed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, of all people, to bail them out late.
This freaky, unsightly, 102-96 win means the Lakers are up 3-1, just 48 minutes from capturing not the greatest NBA championship ever when the ball goes up Friday, but certainly the most unusual.
> Finals Game 5: Friday, 9 p.m. ET on ABC
In a nutshell, the Lakers are ready and overly anxious to burst everyone’s bubble. This appears to be inevitable, because if the Heat couldn’t close the deal even with Bam Adebayo making a spirited return to the lineup, and LeBron and AD not as dominant as Games 1 and 2, how can they possibly deny James his third title with his third team?
In the two or three moments of truth, with their Cinderella hopes on the line, the Heat caved to Lakers’ defense and some unlikely L.A. heroes in the final few minutes. Jimmy Butler, so brilliant in the previous game, was quiet when it counted. His teammates, so feisty throughout this Orlando restart, couldn’t match the energy displayed by the heavier favored and suddenly hungrier team on the other bench. The Lakers didn’t own the first 45 minutes, but they took ownership of the last three.
“We identified ways to take things from them,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. “That’s what the playoffs are about, making those adjustments.”
This will be known as the “Text Game,” one that could only occur in a viral world, where LeBron used his cell phone earlier in the day to remind his teammates that they should be the more desperate team that night and not Miami, despite being up 2-1.
“I feel like for me personally this was one of the biggest games of my career,” he explained. “I just wanted to relay that message.”
Maybe the idea of this series turning was all wishful thinking, anyway. Because the Lakers are clearly the superior team and in these type of games, those teams usually find a way to win. So here we are, the Lakers with the chance to send everyone home and prepared to close the curtain on this improbable and complicated NBA season that began 12 months ago.
That would also be an apt description of Tuesday’s game, where LeBron had eight points and five turnovers at halftime and Davis was pummeled and fell to the court three different times, each with grimace but no harm done. He and LeBron eventually recovered — not so for the Heat.
With the Lakers up two late, Butler was open for a 3-pointer. Understand that this isn’t a comfort area for Butler; he didn’t attempt a single shot from this distance in his 40-point Game 3 outburst and is essentially an old-school, mid-range kind of scorer. Butler missed, LeBron grabbed the rebound and headed up court.
Twenty years or so ago, before the NBA went 3-point nutty, players on the wings of fast breaks would fill the lane, hoping for a bounce pass and an easy basket. Well, nobody does that anymore. Players now instinctively run to the corners. It’s a crazy idea, passing up a potential layup for a less-efficient shot, but welcome to today’s NBA.
Indeed, Caldwell-Pope calls that “my specialty.”
“I’m always sprinting to the corner,” he explained, “being ready to shoot.”
And that he did. When the pass from LeBron arrived, Caldwell-Pope’s trigger-fingers were waiting. Curiously, he’s often a target of scorn among Lakers fans, who are perplexed by his streaky nature; Caldwell-Pope missed 21 of 29 shots in the series entering Game 4.
But that possession and the next became the greatest of his career. He swished the 3-pointer, and less than a minute later, with the shot clock winding down, he took it off the dribble and gently laid the ball in beyond the outstretched hand of Duncan Robinson for a seven-point lead. Those were certainly the most important five points of the game, and maybe the entire series so far.
“He stays ready,” said LeBron of his fellow Klutch Sports client, who had 15 points and five assists.
Davis was just as important at the opposite rim. It was his defense — with a little help at times from LeBron — that made all the difference in the final few minutes. Davis was assigned to Butler and after making his first four shots, all in the first quarter, Butler missed 9 of his final 13.
“I tried to be locked into him,” said Davis. “He’s a pest. We tried to give him a different look, make it tough for him. The last game he took over and imposed his will. It was very easy for him in Game 3.”
Davis not only smothered Butler when it counted, he finished with four blocked shots and especially flexed in the final minutes.
“That guy can guard everything,” said LeBron, who then tweaked Giannis Antetokounmpo by saying of Davis, “That’s why he’s the Defensive Player of the Year.”
As a bonus: Rajon Rondo missed six shots, but the one he made just happened to stretch the Lakers’ lead in those frantic, delicate minutes and Davis followed up by icing the game with a 3.
“Momentum plays, momentum shots,” LeBron called them.
And a series where the Lakers, following a brief stumble, regained some momentum, assuming they lost any in the first place.
It’s been a long stay for the two teams still standing on the Disney campus. By tipoff Friday, they will have lived there in excess of 100 days. They might have voting rights in the state of Florida. This entire enduring process of being hunkered down in a foreign place has been a test of wills, strength and psychology — and that’s before getting to the basketball part of it. The pandemic forced the NBA to do something part drastic and part strategic by placing its season and championship run in the hands of Disney.
And now the Lakers, finally, can shut it all down. They have James and Davis and are confident that someone from their supporting cast will elevate himself and be a difference maker, too. LeBron and Davis will take their Finals MVP chase down to the wire. LeBron is leading the Lakers in scoring and rebounds and assists, and he has that string of near triple-doubles going for him — despite an uneven performance, he went 28-12-8 in Game 4 — while Davis is bringing stellar defensive credentials along with solid offensive outbursts.
Of course, the other prize on the line is heftier and more legacy defining for the Laker franchise. They’re on the verge of winning a championship trophy while Miami settles for a good-job, good-effort pat on the back.
“We’ll come out in Game 5,” Davis said, “and hopefully finish it off.”
In normal times, most tourists to Disney will return home with a special memento to commemorate the experience. As the Lakers returned a verbal volley to Butler and the Heat by essentially saying, “you in trouble,” the Larry O’Brien awaits patiently.
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