ORLANDO, Fla. — Dwight Howard was in the middle of the mix the last time the Los Angeles Lakers thought they’d assembled a sure-fire championship team.
Howard and Steve Nash were the superstar additions that would team with five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant in his twilight prime, the three future Hall of Famers making up the bulk of an All-Star starting five that also included Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace.
The Lakers struggled to make the playoffs only to be swept by the Spurs in the first round, a merciless end to an experiment that would leave a stain on all involved and the franchise for years.
That scar tissue from that experience is what made Saturday’s confetti shower and Western Conference finals championship celebration extra sweet for Howard. He’s back in Lakers’ uniform, back in the starting line, as they closed out the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals and prepare to compete for that 17th championship.
A couple in the NBA.
A Golden State Warriors dynasty has come and gone since the Lakers last competed on this stage in 2010. The Lakers missed the playoffs six straight seasons after that 2013 flameout against the Spurs. Nash is a coach now, taking over in Brooklyn. James is the face of the Lakers’ franchise now, with Anthony Davis as the heir apparent.
LeBron James was asked what the 10th Finals appearance of his career means to him.
"Right now, it don't mean s--- unless I get it done," James told ESPN following the Lakers' 117-107 Game 5 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday to win the Western Conference crown. "I got to get it done."
But James, the NBA's No. 1 all-time postseason scoring leader, put the ball in the bucket. His final six made field goals in the fourth quarter were all unassisted, tied for the most solo shots he has made in the fourth quarter of a playoff game in his career, according to Second Spectrum data. It was the most points he has ever scored in the fourth quarter of a series clincher, and he has had success in quite a few of those, improving to 38-10 (.792) in closeout games, the best record in those games by any player in league history (minimum 25 games), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
If James can wrap up the season with a championship and a Finals MVP, he'd become the first player to win that award with three franchises. It might not be Bryant playing all 20 of his seasons with the Lakers, or Michael Jordan winning all six times in the championship round, but it's his authentic story.