LAL on Top: The Lakers faced every challenge head on

The drought is over. After ten long, forgettable years, the NBA’s glamour franchise, the LA Lakers are back on top of the basketball world.

With a dominating 106-93 finish against the impressive Miami Heat in Game 6 of the 2020 Finals, LeBron James finally fulfilled his promise to the Laker Nation to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Hollywood.

This championship however, wasn’t built in a day. For us Lakers fans, it actually felt like forever. But seeing this team redeem itself for fans all over the globe would not be possible if it weren’t for the strength of this group. And that strength actually stems forth from their struggle.

No other team in recent memory has gone through a similar path like this year’s version of the Lakers did. But if many people think it’s only this past season that counts, I’d like to believe that the long climb started within the organization way, way back in 2011.

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It all started when the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers was vetoed by the league. That move started started an avalanche of bad luck for the franchise. Just look at everything that transpired each year from then on.

In 2012, the team took a risk, giving away a ton of future assets for an ailing Dwight Howard and aging Steve Nash. With two of their main guys out, Kobe Bryant carries the load, leading the team to a Playoff spot at the expense of his own Achilles. In their last Playoff appearance of the 2010s, the Lakers get swept in First Round.

In 2014, promising rookie Julius Randle broke his leg in their season opener. Kobe once again ended his season early, tearing his rotator cuff in January of 2015. Things got so bad for the Lakers that the team didn’t even have enough people on the bench leading to the infamous Chris Kaman nap photo.

In 2016, D’Angelo Russell snitched on his teammate, breaking locker room code, adding unnecessary drama to one of the team’s worst seasons. This was also the same year that Kobe, the franchise icon of 20 years, retired. The situation in LA was so bad, Kevin Durant would not even take a free agent meeting with the team.

In 2017, the Buss siblings publicly fought each other for control of the team, leading to questions about the leadership in LA.

Things turned around in 2018 whe LeBron James decided to join the Lakers. But the good vibes from that coup quickly dissipated when Magic Johnson, then president of basketball operations, built a non-shooting squad around the King. LeBron doesn’t even last the whole season, suffering the first major injury of his career. That didn’t stop LeBron from playing GM. He alienated his young teammates with trade rumors for Anthony Davis, culminating in him missing the Playoffs for the first time in 14 years.

It just felt like the troubles of the team would never end. Just when you thought it would get better with the King choosing LaLa Land, it still had to get worse before it became better.

Nobody trusted LeBron after he made public his desire to get Davis on the team at the expense of the young core. Magic felt “backstabbed” and left just two years into his job as president. Even the coaching choice of either Monty Williams or Ty Lue fell through, and landed in the hands of the not-so-popular Frank Vogel.

It also didn’t help that Kawhi spurned the team for the crosstown rival Clippers, leaving GM Rob Pelinka picking from the crumbs of what was left in free agency.

It honestly felt like the Lakers were cursed.

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And that’s how it seemed to everyone on the outside too. People doubted the health of a 36-year old King and the fragile Davis. They didn’t trust the mishmash of veterans the Lakers surrounded their dup with. The Lakers weren’t considered championship contenders, some even had them missing the Playoffs outright.

But when just about everyone on Earth didn’t pick the Lakers to win, that’s when things started to look up. And for someone who just wants his team back in relevance, that was enough for me.

That amazing 24-3 start the Lakers had early this season felt eons ago. Little did anyone know though that was just a quarter of the longest season in NBA history.

The Lakers faced roadblocks nearly every step of the way, on their way to the championship.

They were rolling midway through the season, zooming to the top of the West. Yes, they weren’t beating the Bucks or Clippers, teams many considered title favorites, yet. But they were getting the job done.

Then in January, the shocking death of Laker legend Kobe Bryant put a pause in the Lakers’ run, forcing the team to regroup and refocus. They finally put on a solid stretch, winning big games over the Clippers and Bucks early in March. Just when they were gaining momentum heading into the Playoffs, the season went on a long haitus due to the ongoing pandemic.

Once again the Lakers had to face a roadblock as a team. Throughout the break, they stayed ready and when the NBA Bubble was finally in place, LA had to come together again to face a new challenge of playing in unfamiliar territory without the backing of their fans in Staples, where they went 25-10 in the season.

The Lakers also entered the Bubble incomplete and hobbled. Avery Bradley, their best perimeter defender opted out of the season restart and Rajon Rondo, their lead guard off the bench was out with a hand injury. That forced several players to step up in their stead. It was a slow start for LA, where their shooting seemed ice-cold during some of the seeding games. None the less, they secured the top seed in the Playoffs early and finally broke their seven-year Playoff drought.

As the Lakers were rounding into form, headed to a series win over the Blazers, play had to be stopped again as the social climate in the US boiled over after the shooting of Jacob Blake. Teams walked away from playing their Playoff games and the season was once again on hold.

As a Laker fan it was impossible not to think: “Does this world really want to give us a chance to be champions again? Seriously?”

When the Playoffs finally resumed, LA took care of business, routing a Portland team some analysts considere the greatest 8th seed in NBA history. They they set their sights on the small ball Houston Rockets. After another Game 1 loss, they pulled off a second reverse sweep eliminating James Harden after he proclaimed “Height doesn’t matter if you don’t have heart.”

The stage was set for a Battle of LA Conference Finals. But the Clippers couldn’t get the job done, allowing the Nuggets to advance to face the Lakers. LA was up against the hottest team in the Playoffs at that points with two stars playing at their peak. But the series ended with the same result as the first two, with the Lakers grinding out a five-game series win.

LA then faced a well-coached, hardworking Heat team that no one expected to make the Finals. In Game 1, Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo both got injured, allowing the Lakers to take the first two games. Finally, it seemed the path to the long-awaited championship was clear.

But Miami would end up being the toughest roadblock of the season.

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Jimmy Butler put the Heat on his back in Game 3 and put on a game for the ages, making sure the Lakers wouldn’t complete a series sweep. He did it again in Game 5. Just when the Lakers were looking at an early coronation, wearing the Mamba jerseys no less, Butler came up big in the clutch, powering the Heat to within a game of tying the series.

They were finally beaten wearing the Mamba jerseys and finally lost a closeout game this season. The Heat pushed the Lakers further than any other team in the Playoffs did this year. At this point, it seemed like the pressure was getting to the Lakers. Were the Lakers truly cursed, enough to blow a 3-1 series lead?

Throughout all those challenges, it can’t be forgotten that there were three constants for the Lakers: LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the ferocious defensive identity of the team.

All three made sure no curse, nor any member of the Heat, could stop them from bringing the Larry O’Brien trophy back to LA.

Davis and the defense worked in tandem from start to finish. The Lakers blitzed an exhausted Miami squad. They forced turnovers, challenged every shot. Davis was a monster in the paint, corralling every rebounds and shading anyone foolish enough to challenge him inside.

As for the King? He anchored that Laker offense and defense to perfection in Game 6. He did everything for LA, finishing with a triple double, en route to another Finals MVP.

All those memories, good and bad, from this past championship-less decade came rushing back one final time. As the team put the finishing touches on Game 6, the memories filled my head like a film from the golden age of Hollywood.

Game 6, and the entire run towards the championship, was beautiful to watch. That was what made the pain, failures, ridicule, struggle – all worth it as the buzzer sounded.

As a Laker fan for the last 20 years, I couldn’t help but shed a tear. From the highs of the Shaq to Kobe years, all the way through those downtrodden seasons prior to this, the struggle was what made this franchise’s resolve more solid than ever.

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University of Virginia head coach Tony Bennet could not have said it any better: “If you learn to use adversity right, it will but you a ticket to place you could not have gone any other way.”

That right there sums up LA’s Lakers story this past decade. The road was rough. Filled with roadblocks, drama and injuries. But the King and the rest of the team firmly declared, “Enough is enough.”

Nike said it best. In a year where the world – not just the basketball one – lost so much, the Lakers, coming together to face whatever challenges that stood in their way, make this win mean so much more.