When the league continued its season in the bubble at Disney World, after a five-month hiatus, several teams were talked about as surefire entries into the finals.
The conventional wisdom was that the Milwaukee Bucks would meet the Los Angeles Lakers for league supremacy where we would see the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, battle the dynamic duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
This battle between NBA superheroes was looked upon as a foregone conclusion at the end of July with only a few other plausible scenarios.
Heat Melt Celtics
However, there were other teams like the Clippers, the Raptors, the Celtics, and the Rockets that could make things interesting and disrupt the applecart. But few saw the Miami Heat coming. As a matter of fact, if you were to peruse the NBA odds on July 31st, Miami was a 40-1 longshot to win the championship. Yet after their Game 6 victory over Boston which clinched the Eastern Conference finals, a title is now within their grasp.
"A great series. It was so competitive," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "I mean, in many ways, this was a seven-game series, just how competitive it was. Extremely well-coached and well-put-together and we are just honored to be a part of that type of series in the conference finals, and then we get an opportunity for the next stage. Our guys will look forward to it. We're going to try to enjoy it for a night."
Boston head coach Brad Stevens was gracious in defeat when he stated, "Miami deserves a lot of credit. They're super physical, super tough, very, very savvy. I think they're the best team in the East and deserve to be representing the East in the way that they have played."
King James Waiting To Be Crowned
If you glance at the LA/ Denver series results you would tend to believe that Los Angeles had an easy time of it against the upstart Nuggets. But the Lakers did not dominate nearly as much as their 4-1 series win would lead you to believe. Had it not been for a miracle three-point shot by Anthony Davis with time expiring in Game 2, the series would have been knotted at one apiece heading into Game 3 where the Nuggets secured a 114-106 victory to cut the Lakers series lead in half. Had Davis not made that shot, it would have been Denver in front 2-1 and not the other way around.
However, great players make big shots in clutch moments and that is exactly what Anthony Davis did and it changed the direction of the series. The Lakers would go on to win the next two games, including their Game 5 series-clincher, 117-107, and await the arrival of their Eastern Conference foe which turned out to be the white-hot crew from South Beach, LeBron’s old stomping grounds.
There were those who whispered that LeBron’s game, while still elite, was fading into the realm of mere mortals. However, consider that he is only the fourth player to reach the NBA Finals 10 times and did it by putting a dagger into the hearts of the Nuggets with 38 points, 16 boards, and 10 assists in the Game 5 Western Conference series clincher.
After getting the Lakers back on the main stage for the first time in a decade, James said:
"For us as a franchise, I'm extremely proud to be a part of this franchise getting back to where it belongs and that's playing for championships and competing for championships, representing the Western Conference this year in the championships. So, this is what I came here for."
While the optimal finals matchup before the playoffs began would have pitted the Bucks versus the Lakers, it’s hard not to delight in the irony of watching the team with which LeBron won consecutive NBA titles compete against his current squad in LA. It’s a bit like the spurned lover returning to seek her revenge.
Nevertheless, the matchup is compelling and the oddsmakers are dealing the Lakers as substantial favorites at -350/+280. But Heat superstar Jimmy Butler isn’t backing down and stated, “You’re going to get the same test over and over again,” referring to facing LeBron James in the NBA Finals. The question is, can Miami pass that test?