The 2020 NBA Finals is set, with LeBron James' past meeting his present.
James' former team, the Miami Heat, earned their first Finals birth since his 2014 departure Sunday night with a 125-113 win over the Boston Celtics.
While few picked a Lakers-Heat Finals when the postseason began, these have been far and away the most dominant teams of the bubble format. Both teams lost just three games in rampaging through their respective conferences, though they did so in wildly different ways.
2020 NBA Finals Schedule
Game 1: Wednesday, Sept. 30 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 2: Friday, Oct. 2 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 3: Sunday, Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 4: Tuesday, Oct. 6 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 5*: Friday, Oct. 9 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 6*: Sunday, Oct. 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 7*: Tuesday, Oct. 13 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC
The Lakers have their best one-two punch since prime Shaq and Kobe were throwing up lobs and threepeating in the early 2000s. James may have found the most talented costar of his career in Anthony Davis, a prototypical modern NBA big with Defensive Player of the Year skills on one end and Swiss Army knife skills on the offensive end.
It was Davis, not James, who hit the game-winning buzzer-beater to give the Lakers a win over the Nuggets in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. Some have even gone as far as to say Davis is the best player on this Lakers team, though LeBron's 38-16-10 line in Game 5 against Denver may have quieted those very-wrong people.
"When I first got here, he told me that he wants to give me my first ring. And I told him, I want to get him back to the Finals," Davis told reporters. "… I tell him all the time, 'I got your back; you got my back.' We know why I came here. We want to win a championship."
If there is any team uniquely suited to give the James-Davis pairing a hard time, it's these Heat. Miami has several rugged, strong defenders who can give LeBron trouble on the wing, starting with Jimmy Butler. The Big Face Coffee entrepreneur has been the Heat's emotional and on-court leader, knocking down a barrage of clutch shots that bring back memories of Kawhi Leonard's run in Toronto last season.
The Heat will probably keep Butler off James early in games to preserve him for fourth quarters, but they can throw Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala at him in the meantime. Crowder's a solid, big-bodied defender who won't be overwhelmed with James' size, and Iguodala literally has a Finals MVP on his mantle for the defensive job he did against LeBron in the 2015 Finals.
Davis may find his own athletic match in Bam Adebayo, perhaps the NBA's most versatile defensive big who has blossomed into an all-around star in these playoffs. Adebayo upped his averages to 18.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists this postseason while turning in stellar defense, including one of the greatest blocks in NBA playoff history.
No player alive can stop Davis, but Adebayo probably has the best shot at neutralizing him.
If the Heat can stop LeBron and AD from being otherworldly—simply reduce them to great—they'll have a shot at winning the series. The Heat's role players on the margins, from Goran Dragic to Duncan Robinson to Tyler Herro, are superior to their Laker counterparts.
If we want to draw a direct comparison to the past, this series looks a lot like Lakers-Pistons in 2004—except these Lakers actually enjoy being around each other and don't turn into a WWE Hell in a Cell match if left without supervision for five minutes.
For as much as James and Heat brass, from Erik Spoelstra to Pat Riley, will spend the next few days fawning over each other and their past accomplishments, make no mistake: Both sides want this. James hasn't forgotten Riley's bad-mouthing in the immediate aftermath of his departure in 2014. Riley's been hard at work proving he can build a champion without James since the moment he left.
This is a legacy-defining potential championship for both parties. For LeBron, it gets him one step closer to acknowledgment as perhaps the greatest player in NBA history. For Riley, he becomes perhaps the greatest team builder in league history.
This may not have been the Finals we expected, but there was no more intriguing possible outcome.