LA Lakers' LeBron James silences critics, with NBA Finals looming
LeBron's decision to leave Cavs for struggling Lakers vindicated by Finals against former side Heat
LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers begin the final challenge in their bid to return to the summit of basketball tomorrow morning (Singapore time) when they take on the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
A full 11 months after the 2019-2020 NBA season first tipped off, a marathon campaign plunged into crisis by the Covid-19 pandemic and tumultuous social unrest finally reaches its climax at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
The Lakers will be chasing a 17th NBA championship, with the 35-year-old James girding himself for a 10th appearance in an NBA Finals, a tally bettered by only two players - Sam Jones and Bill Russell - in history.
It also a vindication of James' decision in 2018 to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Lakers, faded superpowers who were floundering before his arrival two years ago.
His first season in Los Angeles ended in disappointment, with injury restricting his appearances and the team once again failing to make the play-offs.
However, the bolstering of the squad with Anthony Davis, who has formed a superb partnership with James, returned the Lakers to dominance.
"This is what I came here for," James said after Frank Vogel's Lakers defeated the Denver Nuggets 4-1 to clinch the Western Conference title.
"I heard all the conversations... the reason I came to LA, it was not about basketball.
"With the season I had last year and my injury, it just gave the naysayers more sticks and wood to throw in the fire to continue to say things.
"But it never stopped my journey, never stopped my mindset and never stopped my goal."
The Lakers' odyssey back to the Finals has also been marked by tragedy. In January, the team were plunged into mourning following the death in a helicopter accident of franchise legend Kobe Bryant.
A determination to honour Bryant's legacy has driven the Lakers into this year's Finals.
Standing in the way of James' bid for a fourth NBA championship are a Miami team who are happy to be cast in the role of underdogs. The Heat are, at No. 5, the third-lowest seeds to reach the NBA Finals since 1984.
But, Miami are three-time NBA champions, with their then-star James earning the Most Valuable Player award in both their 2012 and 2013 triumphs.
The Heat, led by coach Erik Spoelstra, have excelled through the play-offs with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic outstanding, routing the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks 4-1 in the Eastern Conference semi-finals before accounting for the Boston Celtics 4-2.
Butler, who joined Miami in 2019 from the Philadelphia 76ers, said the team must neutralise James to have any chance against the Lakers.
"The main key, and it's been like this for a very long time, if you want to win, you're going to have to go through a LeBron James-led team," said the 31-year-old Butler.
"At the end of the day, that's what it comes down to... James has so many really good players around him, but you're going to get the same test over and over again until you pass, and that test is LeBron James.
"We're just going to have to play hard. We're going to have to play near perfect because they are such a good team.
"They do so many things well. Obviously you know the star power that they have." - AFP, REUTERS