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3 storylines that make the NBA Finals even better

The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat will face off in the NBA Finals. Here are three storylines that add even more intrigue.

A “Black Lives Matter” banner and “Wear Your Mask,” are displayed on the front of the American Airlines Arena where the Miami Heat normally play basketball, Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, in Miami. The Heat won the Eastern Conference title on Sunday night, clinching that series a day after the Lakers won the Western Conference crown.
A “Black Lives Matter” banner and “Wear Your Mask,” are displayed on the front of the American Airlines Arena where the Miami Heat normally play basketball, Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, in Miami. The Heat won the Eastern Conference title on Sunday night, clinching that series a day after the Lakers won the Western Conference crown.
AP

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat will square off in a first-of-its-kind NBA Finals — one taking place from the NBA bubble at Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

But that’s only one of several talking points to follow tonight during Game 1 of the Finals. It’s the culmination of LeBron James’ return to the NBA Finals — which he has not experienced in more than a year after succumbing to injury last season. We’ll see Jimmy Butler — a hard-working, talented player who lives, eats and sleeps the grind and hustle — have his first shot at the title. The drama over Anthony Davis’ exit from New Orleans to Los Angeles will all come to a head. And, yes, there’s a potential for JR Smith and Dion Waiters to get rings this year.

This is only scratching the surface of what could come from this NBA Finals. Like any season, the NBA Finals is packed with storylines that make it a much more intriguing and entertaining event — especially if you have no horse in the race and you’re watching it for the mere spectacle.

Here are three storylines to watch as the events unfold tonight and throughout the rest of the week.

LeBron James could elevate his legacy to a new level.

Look, it’s no question that the NBA Finals starts and stops with LeBron James. The Lakers star has made the final series nine out of the last 10 years (this will be his 10th overall appearance). He’s won three titles — two with the Miami Heat and one with the Cleveland Cavaliers — and has dominated the decade as someone you’ll always find there.

James has a chance to jump to the next level in the pantheon of NBA players. Right now, he has as many titles as NBA legends Larry Bird, James Worthy and Kevin McHale. Another ring will elevate him to a new level, where he’ll join 11 players who have won just four rings. His peers will be Shaquille O’Neal, Dennis Rodman and Tony Parker. And he’ll be one title win away from Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson.

Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James (23) and Anthony Davis (3) celebrate after defeating the Denver Nuggets 124-121 during an NBA basketball game Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James (23) and Anthony Davis (3) celebrate after defeating the Denver Nuggets 124-121 during an NBA basketball game Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Ashley Landis, Associated Press

James — who is 35 years old and is in his 17th NBA season — might not have many years left in the league. He could retire at any minute, or he could take the Vince Carter route and drag his way to team after team for 22 seasons, still producing in the process. We don’t know. But James is inching so much closer to an illustrious group of players. He smells the title. He sees greatness just over the horizon. Winning this fourth ring puts him on a new tier.

“I am here for one reason and one reason only, and that is to compete for a championship,” James said. “That was my mindset when I entered the bubble, and once I entered the quarantine process. Right from my first practice, my mindset was that if I’m gonna be here, make the most of it and see what you can do and lock in on what the main thing is. The main thing is to finish the season and compete for a championship.”

The Miami Heat are an underdog without a true megastar. But that’s OK.

The Miami Heat enter the NBA Finals as somewhat of a surprising squad, and, in my many eyes, an underdog for the series. The Heat reigned over the NBA in the early part of the decade under the three-headed kingdom of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They had a hard-fought rivalry with the San Antonio Spurs. They snagged a couple of rings. And then everything sort of settled down. But like any great ruling nation, the Heat waited in the wings. They hovered around the playoffs for the last five or so years, settling into mediocrity, drafting mid-level players. Never tanking, never falling, never out of the conversation.

Now, the Heat — promoting the hard-nosed, fitness-led “Heat culture” — are all over the headlines as the top contender for the NBA Finals. They’re the first No. 5 seed to make the Finals, and would then be the first one to win it.

The Heat don’t have a traditional NBA megastar like other squads often do. Most teams are led by stars like James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard. The Heat has a more flower-like approach to their leadership. Jimmy Butler is the tip of the spear, sure, and Bam Adebayo is a stable hilt to keep the weapon moving. But the supporting cast includes the 20-year-old Tyler Herro and the almost-gave-up-basketball stud Duncan Robinson. Former Utah Jazz forward Jae Crowder, veteran former Golden State Warriors star Andre Iguodala and the always-seems-to-be-around Udonis Haslem lead from the bench.

It’s an odd team — but not one you’d be surprised to find in the NBA Finals at the bubble. The NBA’s return has required players to stay isolated for months. Constant COVID-19 tests. Time spent away from family. Day after day of the constant work and grind. Games upon games. And the Heat has pushed their way through, slaying the favorite Milwaukee Bucks and jigging past the Boston Celtics.

The Heat — though an unlikely pick back in March for some — deserve to be in the NBA Finals. They’re a hard-working team that any American can root for. And despite their confidence, they’re definitely an underdog. So those hoping for that Cinderella story, the Heat are the ones to root for.

“So what that nobody picked us to be here? That’s OK,” Butler said, according to ESPN. “Pretty sure nobody is picking us to win, either. That’s OK. But we understand that. We embrace that, because, at the end of the day, we truly don’t care. We’re just going to go out here and compete, play together like we always have, and I’m going to see where we end up. But at the end of the day we’re going to do this our way, the Miami Heat way, and that way has worked for us all year long.”

This is an end of an era (a short one).

There are a lot of storylines about the NBA Finals we could follow. But an intriguing one is that this will be the final NBA game for quite some time. We originally thought we’d see some basketball in December — possibly even Christmas Day. Now, it seems that it might not be until January when we see these stars hit the court again. And we don’t know what that looks like. Will it be in little regional bubbles? Will teams welcome fans back to their home courts? Will the pandemic be over?

And when the NBA does come back — the league will be in a much different spot than what we’ve seen this year. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Iriving will unite in Brooklyn to try to take over the East. The Golden State Warriors will be back with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the second pick of the NBA Draft (assuming they keep it). Stalwarts like the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics will all be better. We’ll be wondering about whether Giannis Antetokounmpo will leave Milwaukee during his free agency next summer. Questions even hang about the future of the Lakers, the Heat and whether the Los Angeles Clippers can get their ship patched for another run at the belt.

An empty court and bench are shown following the scheduled start time in of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
An empty court and bench are shown following the scheduled start time in of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Kevin C. Cox, pool photo via Associated Press

The 2019-2020 NBA season has felt like three seasons — the early days before the All-Star break and before Kobe Bryant’s tragic passing, the days after Bryant’s death leading up to the pandemic and, now, the bubble and NBA playoffs. The NBA Finals is a culmination of it all.

Don’t take these Finals for granted. It’s an end to a unique era in the game of basketball. The NBA bubble will be an event we always look back to — one we always reflect on. We will tell our children and grandchildren about that one weird season, in the same way we will talk about the pandemic and the novel coronavirus.

The NBA bubble was its own era of basketball — even if it was a short one. The last season was so unique and different in ways we’ll never forget. Tonight will put an end to that era.