If the 2020 NBA Finals were a BBQ – then the Los Angeles Lakers are at the grill, apron on cooking the steaks (or meat-free alternative).
The Miami Heat on the other hand – could be considered that unexpected knock on the door, the uninvited guest met with puzzled looks.
No-one expected them to be at this party, but they’ve turned up, are going to make themselves at home and be the last ones to leave.
As the Lakers prepare to meet the Heat, BBC Sport takes a look at the storylines behind the Finals and speaks to those inside the NBA bubble at the Disney World Resort in Florida.
“I think the one thing the Heat have shown throughout the play-offs is that you can underestimate them,” two-time NBA champion-turned TV analyst Kenny Smith tells BBC Sport.
“The longer the series goes on the better chance Miami have, if you look at this game on paper, yes Los Angeles are favourites, but the game isn’t played on paper,” he adds.
Ask most experts and the general consensus seems to be the same: This is the Lakers’ Championship to lose.
|Game 1||Thursday, 1 October (02: 00 BST)|
|Game 2||Saturday, 3 October (02: 00 BST)|
|Game 3||Monday, 5 October (00: 30 BST)|
|Game 4||Wednesday, 7 October (02: 00 BST)|
|Game 5 (if necessary)||Saturday, 10 October (02: 00 BST)|
|Game 6 (if necessary)||Monday, 12 October (00: 30 BST)|
|Game 7 (if necessary)||Wednesday, 14 October (02: 00 BST)|
I promise I’ll continue your legacy – James’ message to Bryant
In 2010 the Lakers won their 16th NBA title, led by Kobe Bryant. Bryant, who collected his second consecutive Finals Most Valuable Player award, guided his team to victory over bitter rivals the Boston Celtics in an epic seven-game series that will be forever remembered as one of the great play-off contests.
It would be another 10 years before the second-most successful franchise in NBA history visited the Finals again.
A decade later and led by another NBA great in LeBron James, the Lakers have added incentive to bring the NBA trophy back to LA. In January of this year Bryant was killed when a helicopter he was travelling in crashed in Calabasas, California.
All nine passengers onboard died, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna.
Bryant spent his 20 year career with the Los Angeles Lakers – the current team have said winning the trophy would be the highest way to pay their respects to a man who spent his life serving the game.
After his death, James, who passed Bryant on the NBA’s all-time scoring list the night before the accident, posted an emotional tribute on Instagram and promised to “continue your legacy”.
“I think this would be great for a city that is in mourning,” said Smith. “I think basketball fans in general are in mourning with the passing of Kobe. I know how much the Lakers claim him but I think the world also claims him, he’s an international figure not just a Laker figure.
“Jimmy Butler had a great relationship with Kobe from what I hear and all the players in the league respected him and they admired him. The whole year has been a Kobe Bryant tribute.”
‘LeBron win puts him in top five ever’
Not for the first time Lebron James is at the centre of the storyline. Now 35 he has been the face of the league for more than a decade.
The veteran superstar is vying for his fourth NBA Championship – with his third team – achieving that feat will see him join a select club.
“The best ability is availability and he’s been that. The fact he’s managed to stay virtually injury free during his 17 year career is remarkable,” said Smith. Referring to the fact that this will be James’ 10th Finals appearance.
NBA Hall of Famer and Lakers legend Magic Johnson, who helped bring James to Los Angeles two years ago, said the 35-year-old told him he would get the team back to the Finals.
Smith adds: “For me Michael Jordan is still the best player I have ever seen. What does a win do for LeBron James’ legacy? It doesn’t change it, it just cements it. However what it does do is it puts him in the five best of any era. Not many have done what he’s done.”
‘Butler & Heat working as a team’
Standing in James’ way is the Miami Heat – a team he previously played for from 2010-2014 – winning two championships with them.
The Heat are now led by Jimmy Butler. Sometimes described as a ‘problem player’, Butler has struggled to find a team and a system where he can flourish, until now.
After spells with the Chicago Bulls, Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers – the 31-year-old will feature in his first NBA Finals.
“I think it works and more importantly it shows us that the problem has never been him [Butler]. When you put winners in winning environments great things happen,” Smith says.
And while James can single-handedly takeover and win games – Butler and his Heat team-mates work more as a collective.
“Jimmy Butler has proven he’s a winner and he doesn’t settle for mediocrity in terms of effort, and I think that might have rubbed players who he’s played with in the past in the wrong way,” Smith adds.
The Disney World bubble & player protests
Since resuming in July, the NBA season is being played at Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.
Initially 22 teams were invited inside the ‘NBA Bubble’ – that number has now been reduced to two.
Coronavirus restrictions mean no fans are allowed and players, officials and media are tested regularly.
“The bubble has kind of become a ghost town. When we first got here it was bustling. There were 1,500 players, coaches and staffers,” Ben Golliver, an NBA reporter for the Washington Post, tells BBC Sport.
“We’ve gone from three gyms to one, from three hotels to one. A couple more weeks and the bubble will be no more – it kind of feels like a game of last man standing.”
Golliver has spent more than 70 days inside the bubble – and says he’s almost forgotten what life “on the outside was like”.
“I take a walk on this 1.5 mile loop daily and every day I used to see Brad Stephens, coach of the Boston Celtics. And one day I didn’t see him and it felt so weird. Then I had to remind myself that he’d gone back to home back to freedom because the team was eliminated.”
Since restarting, the NBA is on record as saying there have been zero positive coronavirus tests inside the bubble. In fact, while the pandemic was initially seen as the greatest threat to the season being completed, it was events outside that put it in jeopardy.
The shooting of Jacob Blake on 23 August led to protests from NBA players and staff. The Milwaukee Bucks refused to leave their locker room – resulting in their game against the Orlando Magic being postponed.
For three days no games were played.
Although no details have been released to the public before the start of Wednesday’s game, there is expected to be some acknowledgement of the Black Lives Matter movement and its aims.
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