The Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers are both up 3-1 in the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, respectively. I do not think the Nuggets will be able to re-re-capture lightning in a bottle to overcome yet another 3-1 deficit. I also do not think the Celtics have the cohesiveness or mettle to come back on a team that plays so similarly to them, but is hotter in this moment. So it’s gonna be Lakers-Heat in the bubble to decide the NBA Finals. Most likely.
This might not be the most attractive NBA Finals matchup on the surface. After all, there was an obvious one lurking off in the distance as two historic teams advanced past each round: Lakers-Celtics. That seems to be what many people were rooting for, hoping to see the two greatest franchises the sport has ever known square off for the 13th time in the Finals.
Here’s the thing, though. They’re wrong. The most appealing NBA Finals matchup is Lakers-Heat.
It’s Just Laundry
Jerry Seinfeld’s famous bit about sports fans cheering for clothes applies here. Lakers-Celtics is lazy. There’s no juice in the current iteration of this legendary rivalry. Why do people want this matchup? ‘Cause it’s happened so often? Is there a secret Jayson Tatum-LeBron James feud I don’t know about? Do people really want to see LeBron end the Celtics’ season yet again?
The Lakers don’t care about the Celtics any more than they care about the Atlanta Hawks, and vice-versa. People just want this matchup because it’s familiar. They recognize that this set of uniforms doesn’t usually like this set of uniforms, so let’s see which set of uniforms wins this time around. There are no other major storylines that connect the Celtics and the Lakers right now.
The Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers, though. Now THAT’S got some drama behind it.
When LeBron James leaves teams, they collapse. They don’t just go from being in the Finals to being a four-seed; they end up in the lottery. It happened to the Cavaliers (twice), and it happened to the Heat, although it was far less drastic of a decline in Miami due to the winning infrastructure Pat Riley and Co. have built. More on Riley later.
Due to the ineptitude of LeBron’s former teams after his departure, he has never faced a former team of his in the playoffs. The Cavaliers haven’t sniffed the playoffs after each of his high-profile exits, while the Heat have wallowed around .500 most years, either missing the playoffs or getting bounced early on.
But not this year. This year, the Miami Heat have rode their mix of young, naïve talent and seasoned gamesmanship to the brink of the NBA Finals, while LeBron has been an MVP-caliber player on the best team in the West. For the first time in his career, LeBron will have to go up against a playoff team that has intimate knowledge of his inner workings, his strengths, and his weaknesses, and in the Finals no less.
THAT is intrigue. Lakers-Heat. None of this Lakers-Celtics rerun garbage.
LeBron vs. Riley
LeBron might be the best basketball that ever lived, but he is certainly not the best at saying goodbye. We all know about the “Decision” train wreck when he took his talents to South Beach. James leaving the Heat was not as much of a spectacle, but it nevertheless made an enemy out of the Godfather himself, Pat Riley.
LeBron didn’t give Riley the time of day as he was trying to court the four-time MVP in the summer of 2014, an enormous sign of disrespect for Riley. This ruined their once strong relationship, and the two did not speak for years. Things have softened between them ever-so-slightly, but there’s nothing like facing off on the biggest stage to rekindle the flames of a dormant feud.
Granted, Riley will not actually be going up against LeBron; but you better believe he will be looking down on James from his box, hands intertwined at his chest, his signature subtle grin adorning his face. Broadcasts will not waste a single second of his reactions, specifically after a LeBron dunk or three-pointer. Two all-time greats who don’t care for each other make any series better.
THIS is legitimate storyline to Lakers-Heat. We need these now more than ever.
Drama in the Bubble
Pat Riley and LeBron James are winners because they succeed at all costs. LeBron will be pushing his 35-year-old body to its limits to hand his former organization a Finals loss. As I said, Riley does not have first-hand involvement in the on-court result, but he and James’s former coach, Eric Spoelstra, will absolutely ensure the Heat have a sound game plan for stopping the Lake Show. I expect Lakers-Heat be a very good series.
LeBron James has long been the epicenter of NBA drama, and no Finals matchup creates more of it than the Los Angeles Lakers versus the Miami Heat. THIS is the outcome you should be rooting for as both teams go for a Game 5 closeout.
Otherwise, we’re just cheering for laundry.