Defense wins…. well, you know the rest.
The Lakers put on a defensive clinic Sunday night as they shut down the Miami Heat 106-93 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to win the hardest Larry O’Brien Trophy in league history. Los Angeles overcame the death of Kobe Bryant, a global pandemic, racial and social justice uprisings, a league-wide strike, and endured four months in a bubble located in a state that was the face of COVID-19 before the White House became ground zero.
These dudes have been through a lot.
And for the sake of irony, Rajon Rondo, a former Boston Celtic who faced the Lakers in the 2008 and 2010 Finals, helped Los Angeles win its 17th NBA championship, tying the Lakers with the Celtics for the most ever. Rondo had a huge night off the bench finishing with 19 points, four rebounds, and four assists in 30 minutes as he collected his second ring.
But to understand how and why Sunday night’s defensive performance by the Lakers was so impressive — beyond the 36-point lead they built in the third quarter — we need to go back 372 days to where it all started.
On October 5, 2019, the Lakers faced the Golden State Warriors in their first preseason game of this season. That’s how long this season has been.
The Lakers won 123-101 in the first game inside of the Warriors’ new Chase Center in San Francisco. It was also the first time we got a chance to see this new roster that had been put together in Los Angeles. At the time, it featured a 6-foot-10 Anthony Davis, a 6-foot-10 Dwight Howard, a 7-foot JaVale McGee, and a 6-foot-10 DeMarcus Cousins who was injured and in street clothes.
The Lakers were huge in their debut, as their big men played a total of 53 minutes that night. And although it was a lowly preseason game, you could see that defense was going to be the Lakers’ calling card all season due to their size.
By Sunday night, that size advantage had disappeared.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel decided to change things up before Game 6 as he took Howard out of the starting lineup for 6-foot-5 Alex Caruso. The Lakers were going to focus on their perimeter defense. It was the first time that Caruso started in the playoffs, meaning that Davis would have to play center instead of his much-preferred power forward position.
The Lakers held the Heat to 20 first-quarter points and were up 64-36 at the break, as their 28-point halftime lead was the second largest in Finals history.
“You committed to the defensive end and became a defensive monster tonight,” said Vogel after the game.
It was proof that the Lakers’ cries about how Davis should have been awarded Defensive Player of the Year instead of Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo were true. Davis was the lone big man for the Lakers in Game 6. Howard didn’t play until the final minute of the game, while McGee didn’t play in the Finals at all.
“You have to compete. It’s tough and it’s tough on the body,” Davis said when ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked him what he learned about himself defensively during the Finals. “It’s a lot of hard work and these guys push me every day, especially (LeBron James) and (Rondo). They’re always on me about being great and being better.”
And if you’re wondering about LeBron James, he became the first player to win Finals MVP for three different franchises, as he won his fourth ring on Sunday night behind 28 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists.
“We just want our respect,” said James. “Rob (Pelinka) wants his respect. Coach Vogel wants his respect. The organization wants their respect. Laker Nation wants their respect. And I want my damn respect, too.”
James has now played more playoff games (260) than anyone in NBA history and is less than three months away from his 36th birthday.
I have no idea how he does it. I just know that the hate and comparisons to Jordan and Bryant need to stop. Just enjoy the ride James is taking us on.
It’s like Nike told us. We Are All Witnesses.