The game began with a guarantee.
That the Miami Heat would be playing Friday without two of their best players did not dissuade their third star from calling his shot.
“No one picked us to be here, we embrace it, we love it … backs against the wall, yada, yada, yada … we’re gonna win,” Jimmy Butler said.
The game ended with a different sort of guarantee.
The Lakers are essentially guaranteed their 17th championship because of, well, yada, yada, yada.
Once again, they did not relax against an overmatched opponent, holding off the gritty Heat, 124-114, to take a seemingly insurmountable two-games-to-none lead in the NBA Finals at the AdventHealth Arena near Orlando.
Once again, for the fourth time in four games, they won in their black Mamba uniforms, this time channeling the memory of designer Kobe Bryant by sinking 16 of a Finals-record 47 three-point attempts.
And, once again, they were led by Anthony Davis and LeBron James but supported by everyone, Kyle Kuzma here, Dwight Howard there, Rajon Rondo everywhere.
Davis was unstoppable, scored 32, rebounded 14, missed only five shots, but he wasn’t even the team’s leading scorer. That would be James, who scored 10 of his 33 in the fourth quarter, closing like usual.
“We’re not satisfied with just the win,” James said. “We want to be great.”
Summoning more sweet memories, they became the first Lakers teammates to each score 30 points in a Finals game since Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
“I can’t even believe I’m up here talking about myself and A.D. with Kobe and Shaq,” James said in admiring amazement.
Yada, yada, yada. The Lakers’ greatness has become long-winded and tedious for those who must face them, but is becoming a thing of beauty for all those who witness it, and has brought them to the verge of history.
Teams led by James never have lost a series in which they’ve led two games to none. They are 23-0 in those situations. Soon they will be 24-0.
“We’re not there yet; we have a long way to go,” Coach Frank Vogel warned afterward. “They’re a very resilient basketball team.”
He can’t say it, but the Heat simply have no chance without two of their three best players, Goran Dragic sidelined with a foot injury and Bam Adebayo out with a sore shoulder.
Meyers Leonard, who had appeared in just one playoff game for all of nine minutes, replaced Adebayo in the starting lineup. Tyler Herro, who at age 20 became the youngest player to start a Finals game, replaced Dragic. They combined for seven baskets.
Yeah, the Heat were pretty much short-handed, but they actually led in this game. Seriously. Three minutes into the game they were up 8-6.
Then Howard happened.
He hit a follow layup. He slammed a running dunk. He blocked Butler. The Lakers went on an 8-0 run that kept them from the first-quarter jitters of Game 1. Howard finished the quarter with six points, two rebounds, one block, one assist and endless energy, and you know what? This is old news. Howard continually has used these playoffs to shed his aging Lakers baggage and adorn himself in effort and selflessness.
All of which makes this a good time to admit this columnist was dead wrong about the guy.
When the Lakers brought back Howard before the season, this space ripped them for embracing a historically selfish malingerer.
“The nightmare is officially back,” I wrote. “A dumb signing … the anti-Kobe.”
Howard has personified the opposite of every expectation. He’s provided the Lakers with a necessary bully while giving Davis important protection. Who’d have thought he’d be such a force in a Finals starting lineup? Who’d have imagined he’d be such an inspiration when cheering from the bench?
“For me, it was just like letting go of ego, pride and just understanding that you can’t have that in order to live a really successful life,” Howard said this week.
The Heat briefly challenged the Lakers again midway through the second quarter, pulling to within four until another Lakers comeback hero showed up.
It was Rondo and, yeah, that was another big swing and miss in this space. When the Lakers signed him it was written here that he’d be a distraction, a coach killer, a crusty veteran not be worth the trouble.
It turns out, since coming back from injuries early in the postseason, Rondo has been the Lakers’ most important reserve. He’s been an extension of Vogel and a ball-handling relief for James. And he’s not just been good, he’s been “Playoff Rondo” good.
During one two-minute stretch late in the second quarter, Rondo threw an ally-oop pass to a soaring James, connected on a beautiful ally-oop to Davis from midcourt, and drove the length of the court for a layup. Rondo finished with six points and four assists in the quarter that solidified a lead that remained through James’ closing kick.
As for Butler’s guarantee, he did score 25 points and was fully supported by his coach.
“Our guys are incredibly stubborn,” Erik Spoelstra said. “I’m not surprised Jimmy would say that.”
Nor should anybody be surprised at the Lakers’ reply.
Yada, yada, yada.
(Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.)
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