2020 Playoffs | West finals: (1) Lakers vs. (3) Nuggets

After dispatching Nuggets, LeBron faces dual challenge in 10th Finals

Whether the Lakers play the Heat or Celtics, LeBron James' legacy will once again be altered

He rekindled the basketball sensibilities among a hoop world that thirsted for action, displayed a hunger for greatness that left millions in awe, and essentially took ownership of the year 2020 from an NBA perspective.

But enough about Michael Jordan, star of “The Last Dance”, this year’s smash basketball documentary.

This is now about LeBron James and his quest to expand his galactic legacy. By the fourth quarter in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, you could plainly see that LeBron would not be denied a 10th trip to the NBA Finals. He dropped 3s from deep. He went hard to the rim, scattering Nuggets’ bodies like bowling pins. And he sent bullet passes to open teammates for jumpers.

Yes, this was arguably LeBron’s finest 12 minutes in the NBA restart, mainly because the scent of the Finals was simply too strong to resist. He scored 15 points in the final quarter of Denver’s season and once again was the best player on a floor he shared with Lakers teammate Anthony Davis and a pair of percolating Nuggets stars, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Not that any of them mattered much on a night like this. LeBron had 38-16-10. And he did all of this in the latter stages of September, in his 17th NBA season and his 35th year on Planet Earth.

Nine of the last 10 Finals have now included LeBron, and the one year he wasn’t involved — last season, his first with the Lakers — he was hurt.

With the West title in the bag, LeBron is now hunting for his fourth championship and by extension a bigger prize: Winning the greatest-ever debate vs. Jordan, an ongoing hot-take that surely will be revisited (a) in the coming days; and especially (b) if LeBron conquers the Celtics or Heat, whichever opponent emerges from the East.

Because really, in an age where arguing over issues both important and trivial has become a national pastime in itself, isn’t that what this really is all about? Not the Lakers gunning for a 17th championship, not AD getting some championship stripes and not even LeBron vs. the next foe … but LeBron vs. Jordan?

The TV debate shows and 24-hour sports radio stations and the internet are desperately clearing their throats and bracing for this. (We would include the water cooler and how that discussion is also preparing for a LeBron-Jordan remix, but nobody goes to the office anymore.)

If nothing else, LeBron will bring an upgraded resume to the table. His performance Saturday was bloodthirsty and borderline brilliant when the game was on the line.

“In a closeout game, I’m just as desperate as the team we’re trying to close out. I don’t want to play another game in the series. I‘m not undefeated in closeout games but my mindset is: I do not want to play another game.”

The triple double brought him three closer to Magic Johnson’s all-time post-season record. The poor Nuggets never had a chance once LeBron locked in and willed the Lakers to next week. It left an impression on his teammates and coaches.

Danny Green: “He’s the greatest player in the goddamn world.”

Lakers coach Frank Vogel: “I don’t know if I’ve ever witnessed a guy take over the fourth quarter of a game in person, possession after possession after possession.”

AD: “In the fourth quarter, he told us it was his time. He just took over. Everybody kind of got out of the way and let him be him.”

The just-acquired West title is the current culmination of a season that saw LeBron finish second in the MVP voting while garnering raves for his ability to play at a high level in middle age. Also, it’s his first year playing mainly at point guard; James led the league in assists and uplifted his teammates and bonded quickly with AD in their first season together.

LeBron also left little doubt that he’s still the best player on this team (with all due respect to fellow All-NBA first teamer Davis) and that he’s winning the battle against advanced age.

“I’ve taken care of my body, been available to my teammates,” he said. “I try to get as much sleep as I can. And I’ve never cheated the game. I put so much into my craft, so much into the game, played with great coaches and coaching staffs. I’m truly blessed and they’ve all allowed me to be me, do the things on the floor that I do.”

Vogel said LeBron has “had a chip on his shoulder all year long” because of critics both real and imaginary, and also because of the challenge of playing in the more competitive West and conquering all obstacles.

LeBron wasn’t ready to label this a mission accomplished, however:

“The job is not done, but it’s great to hit moments in the journey and appreciate it.”

Yes, there’s still work to be done. Next up is most likely the Heat, now holding a 3-2 lead on the Celtics. What a coincidence that would be, to go against the team he once helped win a pair of titles, to have a chance to look Heat president Pat Riley in the eye.

I want to travel my own journey because it is my journey. As Frank Sinatra would say: I did it my way.”

— LeBron James

Yet, the real opponent is Jordan, who two decades after his sixth and final championship still holds a spell over the basketball world, even among those who never saw him play live.

If you doubt this, then you didn’t watch the documentary on the Bulls’ dynasty and certainly can’t comprehend how that TV series, from a ratings standpoint, is superior to any playoff series LeBron has played in this 2020 restart.

Also, since Jordan is 6-0 in championships, LeBron can’t win that battle, even though his teams weren’t favored in five of his six losses in the Finals, the lone embarrassment being the stumble to the Mavericks in 2011 in the first year of ‘The Heatles’.

All of that will be revisited in due time, depending on what LeBron does once the ball goes up this week for Game 1 of The Finals. He spoke briefly Saturday about his legacy and tried to place it into context, while realizing his basketball story is still ongoing:

“I want to travel my own journey because it is my journey. As Frank Sinatra would say: I did it my way. I hope I’ve inspired enough people to play the right way, and have respect from my teammates, the players whom I played against and the teams I represented. At the end of the day, all you have is respect.”

LeBron James definitely has respect, that much is for certain.

But a debate-crazed basketball country wants to know if he has Jordan yet, now or ever.

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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