“It’s probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as far as a professional as far as committing to something and actually making it through,” James said Tuesday on the eve of the NBA Finals. “The toll that it would take on your mind and your body and everything else, it’s been extremely tough.”
Yet James and the Lakers made it look easy in Game 1 against the Miami Heat, rebounding quickly from a slow start to dominate the Eastern Conference champions, 116-98 on Wednesday. The Lakers, the West’s No. 1 seed, entered the series as favorites against the Heat, the East’s No. 5 seed, and their top-end talent advantage dictated the terms of the opener.
James, who finished with 25 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists, found ways to exploit Miami’s weaker defenders, backing them down for layups and drawing extra attention that led to kick-out passes to open shooters. Anthony Davis decisively won his matchup inside, hammering away in the paint to post 34 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
“He’s just a great player,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said of Davis. “The moment doesn’t change things for him. He can hurt you a variety of ways offensively. He led the charge for us with his effort. The bigger the moment, he’s just raising his play.”
The Lakers have had troubles with Game 1s in the bubble, dropping opening contests to the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round and the Houston Rockets in the second. Miami staked an early 25-12 lead, but Los Angeles settled in and regained control by the end of the first quarter. With hot outside shooting and occasional breakouts in transition, the Lakers extended their lead to 17 points at halftime and to 32 points by the middle of the third quarter.
“They smacked us in the mouth [early],” James said. “From that moment when it was 23-10, we started to play to our capabilities. We started flying around. We started getting defensive stops. We started sharing the ball a lot better offensively and just got into a really good groove.
“Fans or no fans, [because of] the inner challenge for myself and the way I prepare, it felt amazing to be playing in the Finals once again.”
The pageantry and pressurized environment of a typical Finals are impossible to replicate inside basketball’s restricted bubble, but the NBA tried. Massive signs bearing the image of the Larry O’Brien trophy were stationed near the locker room and on banners that hung above the court, and the playing surface at AdventHealth Arena was updated with a Finals logo.
The NBA erected a miniature stage to accommodate Commissioner Adam Silver’s annual news conference, and the league invited a long list of luminaries — including former president Barack Obama and Shaquille O’Neal — to appear as virtual fans on a center court video board. In perhaps the clearest sign of respect to the championship series, many reporters traded in their polo shirts, long the preferred bubble uniform, for dress suits.
Yet the bubble’s peculiarities reigned. Courtside billboards advertised upcoming college football games, an impossibility during the NBA’s typical June window for its championship series. When the Lakers closed the first quarter with a 19-3 run, Davis gestured for the crowd to make noise. Three children of Lakers’ players jumped up and down and clapped, while the rest of the few hundred people in attendance mostly sat quietly. The blowout left the crowd in silence for most of the second half.
“It’s been the longest season in NBA history,” Silver said before Game 1, referring to the deaths of Kobe Bryant and former commissioner David Stern as well as to the four-month hiatus because of the pandemic and the immense effort required to construct and maintain the bubble at Disney World. “Being here has taken extraordinary sacrifices by everyone involved.”
The question now is whether the weight of those sacrifices and their dismal opening performance will break the Heat’s impressive resolve. Shortly before halftime, Miami’s Jimmy Butler badly rolled his left ankle. The all-star forward, who finished with a team-high 23 points, initially clutched his leg but hobbled to his feet and remained in the game. The Heat’s bad injury luck continued when a foot injury forced starting point guard Goran Dragic off the court for the second half. With Dragic unavailable and Butler limited, the Heat never mounted anything resembling a meaningful rally.
“We talk about how damn near perfect that we have to play [to beat the Lakers], and that was nowhere near it,” Butler said. “We understand what we didn’t do. What we talked about we were going to do, we didn’t do. We didn’t rebound, we didn’t make them miss any shots, we didn’t get back [on defense].”
Bam Adebayo, arguably the most important player in the series because of his central role in Miami’s defense, committed two fouls in the first quarter, and the floodgates opened when he was off the court. At halftime, Miami was plus-3 in 15 minutes with Adebayo and minus-20 in nine minutes without him. Its hopes of a turnaround rest on his ability to even the matchup with Davis and solidify the Heat’s interior defense. Adebayo also departed for the locker room in the second half with a left shoulder strain.
“We’re better than we showed tonight,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We clearly have to just be a lot better [defensively]. More resolve, more commitment, more multiple efforts, more communication, all of these things. More trust. We have to be much better on that end.”
For the Lakers, the task becomes maintaining a level-headed focus after a night in which everything went right for them and everything went wrong for the Heat. Their vast experience advantage — James is playing in his 10th Finals, while Butler, Adebayo and Dragic are making their Finals debuts — was bound to show through at some point. Miami is well suited to punishing complacency, and it is 3-0 after losses so far during the postseason.
There’s some question, though, whether the Heat has sufficient defensive answers to James and Davis, who thrived early and often in Game 1. Jae Crowder was overwhelmed when asked to guard Davis, and James manipulated matchups at will to pick on Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro, two young and offensive-minded players who have offered major contributions during the postseason.
“I want to be mentioned in the category of champions,” Davis said. “That’s the next step.”
Miami will need to lick its wounds and regain its balance, but it will need to emerge for Friday’s Game 2 with an entirely different approach. Small adjustments won’t be enough, not when James and the Lakers look like a juggernaut intent on ending this series as quickly as possible so they can leave the bubble behind them.
Find highlights from Game 1 …
September 30, 2020 at 11:10 PM EDT
Lakers lead 93-67 after three quarters
By Kareem Copeland
The Los Angeles Lakers dominated the third quarter and pulled away from the Miami Heat 93-67.
The Heat were short handed as Goran Dragic (ankle) didn’t return after halftime and Bam Adebayo left midway through the third quarter.
Miami had no answer for Anthony Davis and LeBron James, but the rest of the Lakers were also hot from the perimeter. Davis scored 12 points in the third quarter alone and now has 30 points as the Lakers shot 43.3 percent from behind the arc through three quarters. James and Davis were responsible for 20 of the Lakers’ 28 third-quarter points
The Heat shot 28.6 percent from the field in the quarter, including going 1 for 10 from behind the arc. Miami scored just 19 points in the quarter, led by five points from Butler.
September 30, 2020 at 11:01 PM EDT
Adebayo heads to locker room
By Kareem Copeland
The injuries are piling up fast for the Miami Heat.
Center Bam Adebayo left the floor midway through the third quarter, heading to the locker room. It was unclear exactly what happened, but Adebayo came down after failing to get an offensive rebound and immediately grabbed his arm. He walked off the floor moments later.
Adebayo had, arguably, been Miami’s most valuable player through the Eastern Conference slate of the playoffs.
The Heat had already lost starting point guard Goran Dragic to a left ankle injury suffered late in the first half. He has not played in the third quarter and is doubtful to return.
Forward Jimmy Butler is playing through a rolled ankle suffered in the second quarter.
ESPN provided an update late in the fourth quarter, saying neither Adebayo or Dragic would return. Dragic was announced to have a foot injury and Adebayo a shoulder strain.
September 30, 2020 at 10:49 PM EDT
Dragic sidelined with foot injury
By Kareem Copeland
Heat point guard Goran Dragic did not start the second half and has not played in the third quarter after suffering a left foot injury. Tyler Herro started in his place.
The Heat said he is doubtful to return and Miami now trails 80-54.
Forward Jimmy Butler is also hobbling after he rolled an ankle late in the second quarter trying to make a move on Anthony Davis. He started the third quarter and immediately scored a basket, but was visibly limping and grimacing.
September 30, 2020 at 10:40 PM EDT
LeBron James’s best play didn’t count
By Kareem Copeland
Lakers forward LeBron James is well on his way to a triple-double despite a somewhat quiet first half, but his play after the halftime buzzer was his most jaw-dropping moment of the first half.
Kyle Kuzma attempted to get a runner off before the buzzer, but the shot was late leaving his hands. The ball careened off the back of the iron, but James was streaking down the floor full speed. The 35-year-old caught it in midair and twisted for a double-pump, reverse dunk that didn’t count on the scoreboard, but was the most athletic feat of the game up to that point.
September 30, 2020 at 10:24 PM EDT
Lakers lead 65-48 at haltime
By Kareem Copeland
The Los Angeles Lakers used a 13-0 run to take control of the second quarter with Anthony Davis making his presence known early in his NBA Finals debut. The Lakers went into halftime with a 65-48 lead.
The Lakers made their biggest move, after trailing by 13 in the first quarter, with LeBron James sitting on the bench. Danny Green, Alex Caruso and Markieff Morris all knocked down big buckets as the Lakers separated from the Heat.
Los Angeles finished the first half shooting 56.4 percent from the field. Davis went into the break with a game-high 18 points while Jimmy Butler had 16 for the Heat. James posted nine points, seven assists and six rebounds.
Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro had been two of the biggest reasons the Heat tore through the Eastern Conference portion of the playoffs, but the duo shot a combined 5 for 15 in the first half.
September 30, 2020 at 9:46 PM EDT
Lakers lead 31-28 after first quarter
By Kareem Copeland
The Miami Heat landed the first punches of the NBA Finals when they jumped out to a 13-point lead early in the game. The quarter ended with the Lakers up 31-28.
Los Angeles closed on a 10-3 run as Alex Caruso buried a triple with 4.2 seconds remaining.
Jimmy Butler and Crowder combined for 18 points in the first quarter while the combo of Anthony Davis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope paired up for 21 for the Lakers. LeBron James scored five points and took just one shot in the first 12 minutes as Los Angeles shot 50 percent from the field.
September 30, 2020 at 9:42 PM EDT
Obama, celebrities virtually attend Game 1
By Kareem Copeland
The NBA Finals are typically star-studded affairs with celebrities packing the courtside seating, especially when the Lakers are involved. A championship series held inside the Disney World bubble, however, eliminates that scenario.
The NBA has been virtually showing fans watching the games from their homes on video boards around the arena. The virtual fans had plenty of star power on Wednesday, headlined by former president Barack Obama. The screens showed Bill Walton, Ray Allen, Robin Roberts, Clyde Drexler, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce among others. Former Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Pau Gasol and Shaquille O’Neal were all visible. Gasol even sported a Kobe Bryant jersey.
The scene wasn’t quite Jack Nicholson courtside at the Staples Center, but the NBA has actively tried to create as much of a normal atmosphere as possible throughout the time in the bubble.
September 30, 2020 at 8:01 PM EDT
What to watch for during Game 1
By Kareem Copeland
Miami Heat (44-29): The Heat have turned into the surprise of the NBA’s Orlando bubble as the No. 5 seed advanced to the Finals after taking out the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and the No. 3-seeded Boston Celtics. Recent champions have been led by superstars like Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade and, outside of the 2019 Toronto Raptors and the 2004 Detroit Pistons, the NBA champions typically feature multiple superstars. The Heat don’t have a traditional superstar in Jimmy Butler, even though he’s a five-time all-star who’s been named all-defense four times and All-NBA three times. Third-year center Bam Adebayo, who made his first All-Star Game in 2020, has arguably been the team’s best player during the playoffs by averaging 18.5 points and 11.4 rebounds. Thirty-four-year-old point guard Goran Dragic is averaging a team-high 20.9 points during the playoffs and rookie Tyler Herro has blossomed in the bubble. The 1995 Houston Rockets won the title as the No. 6 seed in the West and hold the record as the lowest seed to win the championship. Many have compared the Heat to the 2004 Pistons as a group that excels as a unit rather than depending on one or two individuals. Not only does Miami have the inspiration of being underdogs, but it is also playing for its first championship since a run of four Finals appearances from 2011 to 2014, including two titles, with James.
Los Angeles Lakers (52-19): This is exactly where the Lakers planned to be when they signed LeBron James in the summer of 2018. Last season was a bit of a disaster, but the trade for Anthony Davis pushed all the chips into the middle of the table. The pair are the only teammates to be named first-team All-NBA since Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire in 2006-07 and the Lakers will need both to shine for four more victories. Davis is averaging 28.8 points in the playoffs (ranked No. 5) and James sits at 26.7 (No. 8). None of the other top 18 playoff scorers are still in the bubble. James is not only going for a fourth ring, but every title he wins increases his historical significance. The Michael Jordan or LeBron James argument has raged for years, but James would be the only one to lead three different franchises to a title. Davis and James will do the heavy lifting, but the Lakers need help from role players Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Veterans Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard have provided much-needed defense and energy as of late. A Lakers championship would tie the organization with the Celtics for the most NBA titles at 17.