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Plaschke: At long last, the franchise of Magic, Kobe and now LeBron returns to the NBA Finals

The LA Times logo The LA Times 9/27/2020 Bill Plaschke
JaVale McGee, Danny Green standing in front of a crowd: Lakers players celebrate after beating the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Saturday to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in decade. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press) © Provided by The LA Times Lakers players celebrate after beating the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Saturday to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in decade. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Home sweet home.

After a decade spent wandering through a wasteland of turmoil and tragedy, basketball’s marquee team has regained its familiar spot on the NBA's biggest stage.

Back to the house of the Big Dipper and Mr. Clutch, back to the address of Magic and Kareem, back to the digs of Kobe and Shaq.

At long last, the Lakers are back in the NBA Finals.

They charged there Saturday night with a 117-107 victory over the Denver Nuggets to win the Western Conference title in five games and end the longest Finals drought in franchise history.

This time they brought it back with the King and A.D., LeBron James putting up a triple-double with a brilliant closing sprint, Anthony Davis adding 27 points, and everyone breathing a sigh of relief.

As purple-and-gold confetti fell upon on the AdventHealth Arena near Orlando, Fla., James sat on the court while his teammates calmly hugged and exhaustedly basked. They knew they were home. They know what comes next. It begins next week.

“This is not where we’re finished,” coach Frank Vogel said during the midcourt trophy ceremony that looked odd in a near-empty gym. “The job is not done.”

This is the franchise’s record 32nd appearance in the Finals, where the Lakers will have a chance to equal the Boston record with a 17th championship, and holy Bird, they might even play the Celtics!

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Boston is locked in an Eastern Conference finals battle with Miami in which the Heat lead three games to two with all of Los Angeles cheering for a comeback. It is understating the obvious that the historic Purple-Green clash would be beautiful. Even in the middle of Florida, the spirits will surely summon chants of “Beat L.A.” and visions of Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis. The Lakers and Celtics have met a record dozen times in the Finals, including in both teams’ last trip there in 2010. The Lakers won that one in seven games but have only beaten them in two other Finals.

The Heat would offer a bit of delicious fun too as the matchup would feature a duel between relocated icons. The Heat are run by Lakers legend Pat Riley. The Lakers are led by Heat legend James.

James will be playing in his amazing 10th Finals. His series record there is 3-6, which is three titles behind the GOAT Michael Jordan, but another series victory and he could surpass Jordan in one important area. James would become the first player to lead three different teams to championships, and if you’ve long been using titles to determine the identity of the greatest ever, there’s your evidence.

“I’ve been able to, I guess as Frank Sinatra would say, I did it my way,” said James, who scored 16 of his 38 points in the fourth quarter. “At the end of the day and at the end of my career, I just hope I inspire enough people to want to play the game the right way.”

For the Lakers, these Finals will be as much about past trials as future glories. It is one thing to reach the final lap in a race for a championship. It is quite another to arrive at that milestone after spending a decade being knocked to your knees.

In the 10 years since they last appeared in the Finals, the Lakers have endured everything but locusts. They caused much of the chaos themselves, certainly, but nonetheless the ride has been an impossibly bumpy one. That they have hung on to return to glory is one of their greatest achievements, and, led by birthday-celebrating Jeanie Buss, is yet another indication that there might not be a more powerful and enduring franchise in all of American sports.

In those 10 years, they have gone through seven head coaches, a six-year playoff drought, three regime changes, and endured both the retirement and tragic death of the great Kobe Bryant. There has been fussing in the front office, anger on the bench, frustration in the stands, and a precipitous fall from grace that finally ended on a July night two summers ago.

That’s when Magic Johnson signed LeBron James.

The glamour had returned, but the greatness not yet, stalled as it was by James’ aching body and distracted demeanor. The franchise’s comeback required one more giant piece, and it boldly arrived on a June day last summer.

That’s when Rob Pelinka traded for Anthony Davis.

To these two glimmering cornerstones, the Lakers added the unassuming Vogel to coach them, and he was perfect for the task, quietly reminding his stars that their greatest challenge was themselves. He warned them against beating themselves, fighting among themselves, caring only about themselves.

They took the “Look in the mirror” edict to heart and bonded like few Lakers teams since the Showtime era. While there is no true third Lakers star, many have played like one, from the likes of Rajon Rondo to Alex Caruso to Dwight Howard, all role players embraced, all empowered.

“That message began with how together our group was going to be,” Vogel said. “Because we view our chemistry as [an] achievement. ... You have to be tolerant of each other’s flaws, and you have to work and build relationships. ... I’m proud of where that’s at right now.”

The team culture was especially effective during the four-month pandemic shutdown, as the Lakers' connectedness returned when the season returned, allowing them to maximize their many gifts and lose just three times in the 15 playoff games that have landed them back in the Finals.

The only thing missing is the roar of a city that has been waiting for this forever.

“The one thing I can say, I wish we were in Staples Center tonight with our fans, with our Lakers faithful, because they deserve this as much as we do because they went through the last so many years of not being in a postseason run, feeling like their franchise would never get back to this moment,” James said.

Guess what, Los Angeles? They’re back.

“I’m so damn proud of this team and where we are right now,” James said on the night the Lakers journeyed back to their birthright, back to make history, back to where they belong.

Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.

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