A year ago, the hardest thing in front of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers was resurrecting a storied franchise that had missed the playoffs six consecutive seasons. And at the time, that seemed like a pretty steep hill to climb.
There was no way to know what awful events were ahead for the franchise and the world when the season began with media day on Sept. 27, 2019.
No way to know that franchise icon Kobe Bryant would perish along with one of his daughters and seven others in a helicopter crash just four months later. No way to know a pandemic would halt the NBA season and the world in its tracks in early March. No way to know how the league would stop, crying out alongside the country for social justice, on Aug. 26.
None of that was known when this season started, almost a year ago to the day from when the Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets 117-107 Saturday night in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals to advance to their 32nd NBA Finals.
But having experienced it all, having felt it deeply, James' reaction at advancing to his 10th NBA Finals was so, so human.
He sat down on the court, hands crossed at his knees as the confetti fell inside the mostly empty arena in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, where this season has miraculously resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, with a thousand-yard stare that said everything.
"We're going to enjoy it tonight, as we should, because this is not promised every year," James said. "We can't take this for granted, because this doesn't happen every year to anybody."
Not even a basketball season.
The NBA had to fight its way back after a four-month break just to finish this season. Its coaches and players had to make tremendous personal sacrifices to go to Orlando and play inside the confines of the bubble. It wasn't any easier once they got there, either, as players wrestled with the same issues the outside world is wrestling with, but without the support of their families initially.
All of that makes the accomplishment of taking the Lakers back to the Finals seem a bit smaller in this moment. But one day, when normalcy returns and history renders its judgment on James' career, this will be among his finest accomplishments.
"I think it's just an enormous accomplishment to get there with a third team," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of James. "He's empowered this whole group with just buying in with the plan that we had. With how we wanted to play this year and getting the whole group to buy in."
And make no mistake, James took the Lakers the final leg of the journey back to the Finals on Saturday, scoring 16 points in the fourth quarter to hold off a relentless Nuggets team that had pulled off series comebacks against both the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers.
Jerami Grant led Denver with 20 points and nine rebounds in 46 minutes. Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray was hobbled because of a right leg injury but still managed 19 points and eight assists in 43 minutes. All-Star center Nikola Jokic was in foul trouble all night but still converted a three-point play with 4:35 remaining to cut the Lakers' lead to 103-99.
But James wasn't about to let the Lakers lose this one. According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, James' last six shots in the fourth quarter were all unassisted. He scored nine of L.A.'s final 14 points, including a 3-pointer with 1:57 to go that made it 115-103 and essentially iced the game.
James finished with 38 points (15-of-25 field goals, 7-of-8 free throws), 16 rebounds and 10 assists. Anthony Davis, the player James recruited to Los Angeles and has mentored all season for games and moments like they experienced Saturday, had 27 points.
"It's good to get something like this accomplished with this group of guys," said Davis, who had hit the winning 3-pointer in Game 2 of this series but was playing on an injured ankle in Game 5. "We battled through a lot this year. We know the job's not done. It's a great feeling, but we got four more to win for the ultimate goal. While we enjoy this, we still got work to do."
This is the 32nd NBA Finals appearance for the Los Angeles Lakers franchise, which means they've been in ALMOST HALF (43%!) of the 74 NBA Finals. The closest franchise is the Boston Celtics, who have made 21 NBA Finals and could be the Lakers' opponent next week if they can rally back from a 3-2 series deficit against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Including 2020, the Lakers and/or LeBron James will have been involved in 41 out of the 74 NBA Finals (55%).
For three decades, the Lakers had never missed the playoffs two years in a row. But once that downward trend started in 2013, it spiraled. Acquiring James via free agency in 2018 was supposed to reverse that tide. He'd been to eight consecutive Finals and made the playoffs in 13 of his 16 NBA seasons.
But an injured groin muscle and ill-fitting roster plagued James and the Lakers all season, and they missed the playoffs badly.
That was the hill James and the Lakers thought they had to climb when the season began with media day on Sept. 27, 2019.
A year later, they know so much different.
"My shoulders are wide enough to carry a lot of the load," James said after accepting the Western Conference championship trophy. "But my mind is stronger. Always keep my mind strong. And I'm happy to be in this position."