For all of his amazing feats on the basketball court, there’s an unsightly blemish on LeBron James’ resume: his NBA Finals appearances.
In 16 seasons, he’s been to the Finals 10 times with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers. And between 2011 and 2018, he went a jaw-dropping eight consecutive times. But the Finals haven’t always been kind to the four-time MVP, as his ugly 3-6 record leaves much to be desired.
It’s a sensitive topic for LeBron; a glaring weakness in an otherwise impenetrable coat of armor.
“At the end of the day, when I’ve lost in the Finals, the better team won because they played well,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “They were more prepared and they did what they needed to do to win those four games.”
In 2007, his Cavaliers were obliterated by the San Antonio Spurs. In 2014, the Spurs ran it back and annihilated his team again in five games. In 2015, 2017 and 2018, he caught the wrath of the Golden State Warriors. And while each of these losses were demoralizing in their own right, it’s his 2011 defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks that still haunts him to this day.
“I’ve experienced moments in my career, Finals games, where you have all the momentum in the world, and you felt like you had the game under control, and one play here or one play there could change the course of a series or change the course of a game,” LeBron told reporters on Wednesday. “One in particular that always rings home for me is Game 2 of the 2011 Finals in Miami versus Dallas. (Dwyane Wade) hits a three right by their bench. I believe it put us up either 13 or 17. From that moment on, Dallas went on a hell of a run and finished it off with a Dirk Nowitzki left-hand layup to steal that game. That shit burns me to this day.”
After blowing Game 2 of that series, the Heat were never the same squad again and eventually lost to the Mavericks in six games. LeBron, in particular, got killed for vanishing into thin air when his team needed him most. In Game 4 of that series, he stunk up the building with a putrid 8-point outing on 3-11 shooting, and we don’t even wanna talk about what happened in the second half of Game 6—a meltdown so bad that his own teammate, Eddie House, accused LeBron of quitting on the team.
Entering the 2020 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, it’s clear that that embarrassing loss still weighed heavily on his mind. So after watching LeBron spend 36 minutes on the floor attacking the basket, knocking down treys and making crisp passes to set up his teammates for easy points in a 116-98 blowout (the box score doesn’t do the end result justice), his Game 1 performance against the Heat shouldn’t come as a surprise—because LeBron has no intentions of ever losing a Finals series again.
And having a player like Anthony Davis on his side doesn’t hurt either.
“The bigger the moment, he’s just raising his play,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said about Davis, who put up 34 points, nine boards and five assists in his first Finals game ever.
Initially, the Heat put up a hell of a fight, jumping out to a 23-10 lead in the opening quarter. But shit went left fast after Goran Dragic left the game in the second quarter with a foot injury, Jimmy Butler twisted his ankle right before the half and All-Star center Bam Adebayo left in the third quarter with a shoulder strain. Everything after that was a mercy killing.
At one point, the Lakers led by as many as 32 points.
“We’re much better than we showed tonight,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You have to credit the Lakers. We’ll get to work for the next one.”
Adebayo’s injury is concerning, but Dragic’s foot injury is much worse than most of us initially thought. After laying waste to damn near every opponent he’s faced this postseason, he’s been diagnosed with a torn plantar fascia—an injury that can take as many as 12 weeks to heal—according to Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic.
“I, and we, are here for him,” Butler said about Dragic. “We know how much he wants to win, how much he wants to go to war and battle with us. And obviously, we love him for that and we want him out there with us. But whatever the docs tell him to do, that’s what he’s got to do. [...] He’s got to take care of himself first.”
Adebayo and Dragic will continue to seek treatment and be re-evaluated, but trust and believe LeBron and those boys are ready for war.
Game 2 of the NBA Finals is scheduled for Friday.