Michael Malone and LeBron James experienced their first conference finals together 13 years ago: the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ stunning 2007 upset of the Detroit Pistons in which James was just 22 and Malone was an assistant coach.
Their faces aren’t quite as smooth now and they have less hair, but their presence together in the conference finals in 2020 is just as unexpected.
Now a veteran coach known for his iron will, Malone has his Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals after a breathtaking comeback to knock out the favorite LA Clippers. Now he gets to be with James again, this time trying to figure out how the heck to stop him.
For the past year or so, James and the Los Angeles Lakers had been thinking about a playoff series with the Clippers. It was supposed to be a final battle in an arms race of superstars and the NBA’s first hallway series. It was supposed to be about score-settling, bragging rights and legacy building.
All of that has come apart with the Nuggets wielding a wrecking ball as they’ve reached the conference finals for the first time since 2009.
The Lakers now vault to massive title favorites with the two teams they expected to have to beat to get the Larry O’Brien Trophy — the Clippers and No. 1 overall seeded Milwaukee Bucks — both upset in the second round.
No matter how the Eastern Conference finals plays out, the Lakers now have the star power and experience advantage of the remaining teams left. They are also hot, having gone 8-2 in blitzing through the first two rounds and have the look of the fire-breathing championship contender that was largely absent from the Clippers and Bucks.
James is playing in his 11th conference finals, a run that dates back to the time when Malone’s hair was dark and many of the Nuggets, the youngest team in the playoffs, were in elementary school.
This matchup also tilts nicely toward Anthony Davis, playing in his first conference finals. Though Nuggets star Nikola Jokic is a central reason his team has overcome two 3-1 deficits, Davis won the matchup handily during the regular season as the Lakers went 3-1, including two wins in Denver.
The Nuggets, of course, will not care about that. They had their first charter flight home booked for Aug. 26. That one was canceled. Delta has rebooked that same charter five more times for them, and five more times it has been wiped off the books.
Nonetheless, the path to a fourth title has never been better paved for James. And he’s not one who often passes on opportunities.
— Brian Windhorst
How the Lakers got here
Led by LeBron James’ near-triple-double, the Lakers pummel the Rockets by double digits to advance to the Western Conference finals.
2019-20 record: 52-19 overall
Offensive rating: 111.7 (11th) | Playoffs: 114.4 (third)
Defensive rating: 106.1 (third) | Playoffs: 105.4 (third)
The Lakers team that sleepwalked through the seeding round, going 3-5 while presenting an on-court product that vacillated between disinterest and disaster, is not the same Lakers team that went 8-2 through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
No, the team that earned the franchise’s first trip to the conference finals since 2010 was a defensive menace, first putting the clamps on bubble MVP Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers, then keeping the pressure on the league’s leading scorer, James Harden, and the Rockets.
“I mean, you hear it all the time, but defense wins championships,” Davis said after L.A.’s Game 5 closeout victory over Houston. “Our biggest focus is going to be locking in defensively and letting that lead the way.”
Davis, who is averaging 27.6 points per game in these playoffs on 58.6% shooting from the field and 39.1% shooting from 3 with 10.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.5 blocks per game, has had James (26.6 points on 55.3% from the field and 37.1% from 3, with 10.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.1 blocks per game) right alongside him.
But L.A.’s success hasn’t just been about the duo’s domination. During both series the Lakers fell behind 0-1 only to win four in a row to advance, as several L.A. role players — Danny Green, Rajon Rondo, Markieff Morris and Alex Caruso among them — battled through rough spots to find a rhythm.
— Dave McMenamin
How the Nuggets got here
Jamal Murray pours in a game-high 40 points and Nikola Jokic tallies a triple-dou