The 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers were one of the best defensive teams in the league during the entire season, ending with the third-best Defensive Rating of all NBA teams. They seemed to take their defense to a whole other level in the playoffs, as Frank Vogel and the coaching staff were able to adapt and gameplan their defense more efficiently in a playoff series as they were continuously responding to what the opposing offenses were presenting to them. In the 2020 NBA Finals, the Lakers seemed destined to close out the series in Game 5 as they took to the court in their Kobe Bryant designed Mamba jerseys, jerseys they had not lost in prior to that game. The Miami Heat ultimately won behind a stellar performance from Jimmy Butler, as the Lakers were going to have to find a way to stop him in Game 6 to close out the series. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers did just did, winning the franchise’s 17th championship behind a beatdown in Game 6.
LeBron James matched up with Jimmy Butler often in that game, with Lakers assistant coach (and former player) Mike Penberthy telling Ryan Ward of Lakers Daily that LeBron James took some defensive initiative in the film session before Game 6, saying that he wanted the assignment of guarding Jimmy Butler (h/t Harrison Faigen and Silver Screen & Roll):
Game 6. We sat down. We had a game plan set in place. We sat down to do our usual. We turned on the video. We walked through Miami.
LeBron says, “Coach, I want to guard Jimmy [Butler]. I want to match his minutes. I feel like I need to match up with him the whole game. I don’t want anybody else to guard him. I want to guard Jimmy Butler.”
Rob Pelinka appeared on Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast this past Friday, affirming Penberthy’s claims that LeBron did volunteer for the assignment. Adding to it, Pelinka said that Rajon Rondo shared LeBron’s aggressiveness in defending Butler, telling LeBron that he would guard him when LeBron was off the floor.
And I remember Coach (Frank) Vogel, who’s, again, a very collaborative guy with his decisions…LeBron (James) and (Rajon) Rondo in particular…LeBron stepped up and said “Hey, I’m taking him (Jimmy Butler). I’m taking him for Game 6”. And Rondo said “Hey, this championship, this particular championship is going to be won with defense.” And he said, “Bron, if you’re not in the game, if you’re not on him, I got him. I’m not going to let him be comfortable, and survey the — I’m going to get up under him, I’m going to agitate him.” So I think just having that mindset that LeBron has of doing what it takes to be the best just permeates throughout the whole team and the whole organization, and AD, I would say the same about him.
It really seems like the Lakers’ veteran leadership carried them throughout the bubble, with this being yet another example. Pelinka was discussing the leadership of LeBron and Davis throughout this portion of the podcast, as it’s easy to see how LeBron’s desire for that type of assignment can positively affect the mindset of a teammate who probably hasn’t been to as many NBA Finals as a LeBron James or a Rajon Rondo have been to. It also shows the type of confidence that LeBron and Rondo had in their defense at this point, as LeBron had shown the ability to defend the team’s opposing players throughout the bubble while Rondo had shown his ability to be a disruptor to opposing offenses with many steals and fastbreaks from his defense.