LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Standing off to the side as his teammate Anthony Davis spoke to reporters about how his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers delivered him the first NBA Finals berth of his career, LeBron James was asked what the 10th Finals appearance of his career means to him.
“Right now, it don’t mean s— unless I get it done,” James told ESPN following the Lakers’ 117-107 Game 5 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday to win the Western Conference crown. “I got to get it done.”
He certainly finished off the Nuggets. James scored 16 of his game-high 38 points in the fourth quarter, going 7-for-10 from the field in the final frame. He showcased the rest of his skills throughout the game, with 16 rebounds and 10 assists to record his 27th career playoff triple-double, second only to Magic Johnson’s 30.
But James, the NBA’s No. 1 all-time postseason scoring leader, put the ball in the bucket. His final six made field goals in the fourth quarter were all unassisted, tied for the most solo shots he has made in the fourth quarter of a playoff game in his career, according to Second Spectrum data. It was the most points he has ever scored in the fourth quarter of a series clincher, and he has had success in quite a few of those, improving to 38-10 (.792) in closeout games, the best record in those games by any player in league history (minimum 25 games), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
As he splashed jump shot after jump shot over Denver defenders — his five jumpers in the quarter tied for the most jump shots he has had in the fourth quarter of any game since Second Spectrum started tracking in 2013-14 — he was reminded of the first time he slipped on a Lakers uniform for a preseason game in San Diego two years ago. The Lakers were playing the Nuggets.
“I remember that preseason game,” James told ESPN. “I remember us running out of the tunnel. I remember the first pass I threw was to the Most Improved Player this year [Brandon Ingram], for a layup and it was a great moment. And I remember the first shot I made was a kickout 3 over [Nikola] Jokic. I remember that. And the crowd. Damn. It was special. It was special.”
There was no crowd Saturday, save for about a dozen of the Lakers’ family members sitting in the stands at AdventHealth Arena as COVID-19 precautions have the NBA finishing out its season in a bubble where daily testing is mandatory, but it was still special in its own right.
When James was asked to say a few words at center court after white and gold confetti had fallen to commemorate the Lakers’ first trip to the Finals since 2010, when Kobe Bryant led L.A. past its rival, the Boston Celtics, in seven games, he allowed himself to live in the moment.
“We’re going to enjoy it tonight, as we should, because this is not promised every year,” James said. “There’s only two teams that can advance to the Finals every year. That means pretty much 30 players that only advance every year to the Finals. We’re going to enjoy it tonight, but we understand we have bigger fish to fry. We understand there’s a bigger goal, but we can’t take this for granted because this doesn’t happen every year to anybody.”
And not every year is quite like the one the Lakers endured to get to this point. From nearly having preseason games canceled abroad, to Bryant’s tragic death in January, to a 4½-month hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic, they went through a lot.
“I’ve been fueled all year,” James told ESPN. “All year. Even during the shutdown. I was still training.”
Along the way, Bryant, a maniacal worker in his own right, became a source of inspiration and motivation, as the team broke huddles by chanting “1-2-3 Mamba!” and wore special black, snakeskin-print jerseys in the playoffs in his honor.
For James, who memorably echoed Bryant’s announcement that he would skip college to “take my talents” to the NBA when he left Cleveland in 2010 to “take my talents to South Beach,” his declaration that he has “bigger fish to fry” was merely coincidental. Bryant dismissively uttered that quip during the 2006 playoffs when it was suggested that Raja Bell of the Phoenix Suns was locking him down on defense.
“He did?” James told ESPN when informed of the parallel phrasing. “Oh, s—. Really? Nah, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that. That’s funny. There’s some crazy s— going on.”
In a basketball sense, nothing wilder than the challenge that awaits James in the Finals. Should the Miami Heat — who are up 3-2 over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals — advance, he will face his old team, led by its architect, Pat Riley, who rubbed James the wrong way when he left Miami to return to Cleveland in 2014.
If Boston comes back, James and the Lakers will have a chance to tie the Celtics for the most championships in league history with 17, by beating the very team ahead of them to do so.
And a victory would also give him his fourth championship of his career in the same place Bryant won his fourth: Orlando.
That’s all still at stake. Even though James’ 10 Finals appearances ties him for the third most all time with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, trailing only Sam Jones’ 11 and Bill Russell’s 12; even though the Lakers have persevered through so much to get to this point, there’s still more to do.
If James can wrap up the season with a championship and a Finals MVP, he’d become the first player to win that award with three franchises. It might not be Bryant playing all 20 of his seasons with the Lakers, or Michael Jordan winning all six times in the championship round, but it’s his authentic story.
“I just want to travel my own journey, because it is my journey. I’ve appreciated everything that’s happened along the way. I mean, throughout — the ups, the downs, the ups on the court, the downs on the court, the wins and losses,” James said. “But I’ve been able to, I guess as Frank Sinatra would say, ‘I did it my way.'”
Before it’s time to play Sinatra as a swan song, however, James is thinking about a lyric from Jay-Z’s 2003 track “Public Service Announcement” as his directive.
“‘Finish your breakfast,'” James told ESPN, citing Jay-Z’s way of saying you need to get the job done. “Mmm hmm. Finish your breakfast.”