LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Purple-and-gold confetti fell on LeBron James late Saturday night as he sat on the court in a largely empty arena and digested the fresh reality that he was headed to his ninth N.B.A. finals in 10 seasons. One of the first people he thought about was Anthony Davis, his teammate on the Los Angeles Lakers.
“This is the reason I wanted to be a teammate of his and why I brought him here,” James said after the Lakers closed out the Denver Nuggets with a 117-107 win in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. “I wanted him to see things that he had not seen before in this league. To be able to come through for him meant a lot for me personally.”
Their partnership has the Lakers four wins from the franchise’s 17th championship — the Lakers will face the Miami Heat or the Boston Celtics in the N.B.A. finals — and it has been mutually beneficial from the beginning. Davis, a 27-year-old power forward, recalled an early conversation with James, 35, after they became teammates before the start of the season.
“When I first got here, he told me that he wants to give me my first ring,” Davis said. “And I told him that I want to get him back to the finals.”
The Lakers have endured their share of adversity this season — the league’s longest season, by the calendar. They found themselves caught up in of a geopolitical feud during a preseason trip to China, then mourning the death of Kobe Bryant in January. After a four-month hiatus brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the Lakers traveled to Walt Disney World for the N.B.A.’s restart with their lofty goals intact: championship or bust.
“It’s been a crazy obstacle course for our franchise,” James said.
Even as he nears the end of his 17th season, a season that started nearly 12 months ago — “An eternity,” his teammate Jared Dudley said — James has been thrilling to watch.
On Saturday, he was at his best, which is saying a lot: 38 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists while shooting 15 of 25 from the field. He scored 9 straight points for the Lakers late in the fourth quarter. During a subsequent timeout, his teammate JaVale McGee pretended to place a crown on James’s head.
“It’s incredible,” Michael Malone, the coach of the Nuggets, said. “When you just step back and look and marvel at what LeBron is doing at this stage of his career, how he continues to find ways to improve and get better, and take whatever team he’s on to new heights, that defines greatness.”
But it is worth remembering last season, too, when many people realized that James was not, in fact, indestructible. He missed a big chunk of the season after injuring his groin, and the Lakers finished in the draft lottery with a 37-45 record. The finals were LeBron-free for the first time since 2010 — James said he watched every game on television, including two of them at a hookah lounge — and it was the first time he had missed out on the postseason entirely since 2005, when he was a second-year player for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Davis was having problems of his own as he spent much of last season trying to force his way out of New Orleans. A trade with the Lakers finally materialized in June 2019.
It has made all of the difference — for James, for Davis and for the Lakers, who are making their first trip to the finals since 2010, when Bryant won his fifth and final ring. James is now preparing for his 10th trip to the finals over all. The list of athletes who have been so good for so long is a short one.
But this is all new ground for Davis. For all of his individual accolades, he had never made a deep playoff run. In seven seasons with New Orleans, he went to the playoffs twice and helped the team win one series. There was never any doubt that he was gifted. But could he elevate a franchise?
One of Davis’s new teammates this season happens to be the game’s most dominant force, a basketball-playing cyborg. But James has never won a title by himself. He has needed to pair with outstanding players — Dwyane Wade in Miami, Kyrie Irving in Cleveland — and that does not make him unique. Now, he has paired with another.
In five games against the Nuggets, Davis averaged 31.2 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 54.3 percent from the field. He also produced the highlight of the series — and perhaps of the entire restart — when he sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer in Game 2, lifting the Lakers to a 105-103 win.
Afterward, James thought back to a game the Lakers had played against the Nets in March. Davis tried a similar shot — a 3-pointer in front of the opposing bench — that he missed, and the Lakers lost. Davis was hard on himself, but James said he was heartened that Davis had even been willing to take the shot.
“It’s not about making the shot,” James said. “It’s about having a belief of just taking it, for one, and living with the result.”
Davis was not pleased with his performance in a Game 3 loss to Denver — “I can’t have two rebounds in an entire game,” he said — and James knew enough to keep his distance ahead of Game 4. He was basing that read of the situation on the positioning of Davis’s eyebrows — his unibrow, to be specific.
“If his brow is really low, then you know not to talk to him,” James said. “If it’s higher, then he’s accepted the fact that you’re allowed to come into his office and talk to him.”
The day after Game 3, James analyzed the brow barometer: low brow. “No one talked to him,” James said.
Davis scored 34 points in Game 4 but rolled his ankle, and the Lakers listed him as “questionable” for Game 5. A “questionable” Davis was in the starting lineup and finished with 27 points and 5 rebounds, then delighted in the strange aftermath: a trophy presentation in an empty arena pumped full of confetti and artificial crowd noise.
It was a celebration that was different and special (in its own way), and it felt like the beginning rather than the end.
“This group of guys only wants one thing,” Davis said, “and that’s to win a championship.”