“Jobs Not Finished”: The Lakers journey back to the NBA Finals

LeBron James sat on the court, shoes off, confetti swirling as he soaked up the scene around him.

Anthony Davis gripped the trophy tight, as he reminisced on his journey to Los Angeles.

Frank Vogel, after all those years being dismissed by James’ teams, finally got to play the part of victor with him.

Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard, veterans written off by the league over the decade since their last NBA Finals appearances, celebrated their return.

And the Los Angeles Lakers? Oh was last night a great night for a franchise coming off the darkest times in its existence. For the past 7 seasons the Lakers seemed so utterly directionless, facing the potential of going more than a decade between NBA Finals appearances.

But just like that, all those years of low points, watching Robert Sacre air ball post hooks, turned into pure pride. The organization is back on top of the Western Conference for the 32nd time in franchise history.

Four more wins over either Miami or Boston — Game 6 of that series is Sunday — and the Lakers will hang a 17th championship banner in Staples Center — just as soon as they’re let back in the building to celebrate with their fans.

“I’m extremely proud to be a part of this franchise getting back to where it belongs,” James said. “This is what I came here for.”

As the Lakers celebrated their 117-107 win and the franchise’s first Western Conference championship in a decade, the clock in Orlando eased toward midnight and the early morning of Sept. 27, marking one full year since James, Davis and the rest of the Lakers first came together for media day.

Clinching a Finals appearance 1 full year to the day of the official start of the 2019 calendar was a reminder of how long this season has been.

The Lakers have constantly navigated conflict and tragedy to the highest of degrees.

From the imbroglio in China to the death of Kobe Bryant to calls from inside the bubble for racial equality, the Lakers remained focused on what they set out to do back on Sept. 27, 2019.

On that day, they projected an image of togetherness and spoke about returning glory to the Lakers franchise. They sought to reverse a decade of mistakes, misfortune and misery.

Put championships aside for a minute. The storied franchise had not made so much as a playoff appearance in seven years. Its last title was a decade earlier in 2010. Since then, the franchise had cycled through six coaches, made and traded four lottery picks and been deemed too damaged to lure any of the All-Stars who hit free agency, leaving Hollywood’s team without a face of the franchise to carry on its superstar tradition.

But James bucked that trend in 2018. And after a failed, but ultimately forgiven, first season in L.A., he got the running mate he coveted in Davis.

“This is the reason why I wanted to be a teammate of his and why I brought him here,” James said after Davis scored 27 points in Game 5. “I wanted him to see things that he had not seen before in this league.”

They spent an entire year focused on reaching the NBA Finals. It has been what James called “a crazy obstacle course for our franchise this whole year.” But the Lakers never wavered from their goal, even when the league’s reboot required a three-month commitment in central Florida.

The Lakers navigated all of that and now have secured their place in the NBA Finals with the hopes of winning get championship in honor of Kobe Bryant.

Speaking of Bryant, the team continues to preach his sentiment:

“Jobs not finished.”

With each significant moment accomplished this season, the team simply responded with that great Kobe quote. Even last night, at the peak of celebrating the Conference title, the players and coaching staff acknowledge that they’ve got more work to do.

It was that mindset that allowed the Lakers to close out the ever resident Denver Nuggets after having them down 3-1. They couldn’t let up because the aspirations go beyond a Conference Finals appearance.

You could see it in the eyes of James and company throughout the 4th quarter.

James scored 16 of his 38 points in the final quarter, including a run of nine straight points in 103 seconds to push the Lakers’ lead to 115-103 with 1:57 remaining.

“I do not want to play another game,” James said of his mindset in the fourth quarter. “I mean, I love the game, but I do not want to play another game. That’s always been my mindset.”

As the clock ticked down the Lakers could feel that they were that much closer to their final goal.

It was also a feeling of retribution for James.

Not only did James miss 27 games with a groin injury a year ago, but he also appeared disengaged from the rest of the team when he was on the court. He spent much of that first season lobbying for a trade for Davis, and last summer he split his time between training and filming the sequel for “Space Jam.”

Critics used all that to build a case that James was a diminished version of himself. I won’t lie, I was at the forefront of that conversation when things were real bad last season. I ripped into him for that game where he was so disinterested that he threw an inbound pass off the back of the backboard.

“I heard all the conversations and everything that was said about why did I decide to come to L.A. — the reason I came to L.A., it was not about basketball,” James said. “All those conversations, just naysayers and things of that nature. I understood that, with the season I had last year and my injury, it just gave them more sticks and more wood to throw in the fire to continue to say the things that they would say about me. But it never stopped my journey and never stopped my mindset and never stopped by goal.”

Now, he and Davis have secured a place in history, as the latest duo to carry the Lakers to the finals, joining Baylor and West, Magic and Kareem, Kobe and Shaq, Kobe and Pau.

James and Davis have been the perfect pairing, and it is their ability to hold each other accountable that strengthens their play.

“We don’t want to let each other down,” Davis said. “We know why I came here. We want to win a championship. We’re four wins away, a step closer to our goal. He feels that if we don’t, then you know, he let me down. I feel like if we don’t, then I let him down and then it will be like, our team let the organization down. So, we don’t want to have that feeling.”

But this is a true team effort. At each turn you will find a guy who prospered this season, in spite of any criticisms or lack of faith.

The conference championship validates the embattled tenure of Rob Pelinka, who built a contending roster despite only having James, Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee and Alex Caruso as carryovers from last year’s roster.

Even with some stumbles along the way, Pelinka landed on a coach in Vogel who had instant rapport with his stars, and he built a roster of veterans who have risen to the challenge of these unprecedented playoffs.

Vogel knew that he and Pelinka had assembled a very talented team heading into this season. He also knew the expectations was a title.

“It really came down to whether we are going to be able to come together and how quickly. That was the mindset at that time, was: How quickly could we come together?”

The chemistry was there early on, but the moment we lost Kobe and Gigi, things changed.

These guys were no longer just teammates and companions. They became brothers bonded eternally by the tragedy of losing an icon. They mourned together, cried together, celebrated together, and called for social justice together. They could have laid down and threw in the towel with all of the obstacles thrown their way, but they elected to come together stronger than any team prior. And for that this team will always be remembered, championship or not.

But don’t bring that “championship or not” talk inside that locker room. Because the mentality is win the championship, there is no other option.

“The job is not done,” Vogel said during the on-court celebration. “We’re happy with winning this conference championship, but the job is not done.”


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