Plaschke: At long last, the franchise of Showtime, Magic and Kobe returns to the NBA Finals

Plaschke: At long last, the franchise of Showtime, Magic and Kobe returns to the NBA Finals

Home sweet home.

After a decade spent wandering through a wasteland of turmoil and tragedy, basketball’s marquee team has regained its familiar spot on the NBA’s biggest stage.

Back to the house of the Big Dipper and Mr. Clutch, back to the address of Magic and Kareem, back to the digs of Kobe and Shaq.

At long last, the Lakers are back in the NBA Finals.

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They charged there Saturday night with a 117-107 victory over the Denver Nuggets to win the Western Conference title in five games and end the longest Finals drought in franchise history.

This time they brought it back with the King and A.D., LeBron James putting up a triple-double with a brilliant closing sprint, Anthony Davis adding 27 points, and everyone breathing a sigh of relief.

As purple and gold confetti fell at AdventHealth Arena near Orlando, Fla., James sat on the court while his teammates calmly hugged and exhaustedly basked. They knew they were home. They know what comes next. It begins next week.

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“This is not where we’re finished,” Coach Frank Vogel said during the midcourt trophy ceremony that looked odd in a near-empty gym. “The job is not done.”

This is the franchise’s record 32nd appearance in the Finals, where they will have a chance to equal the Boston record with a 17th championship, and holy Bird, they might even play the Celtics!

Boston is locked in an Eastern Conference Finals battle with Miami, where the Heat leads three games to two with all of Los Angeles cheering for a comeback. It is understating the obvious that the historic purple-green clash would be beautiful. Even in the middle of Florida, the spirits surely will summon chants of, “Beat L.A.” and visions of Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis. The Lakers and Celtics have met a record dozen times in the Finals, including in both teams’ last trip there in 2010. The Lakers won that one in seven games, but have beaten them in only two other Finals.

Lakers star LeBron James speaks with players after the Lakers' series-clinching win.

Lakers star LeBron James speaks with players after the Lakers’ series-clinching win over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

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The Heat would offer a bit of delicious fun too, as they would feature a duel between relocated icons. The Heat are run by Lakers legend Pat Riley. The Lakers are led by Heat legend LeBron James.

James will be playing in his amazing 10th Finals. His record there is 3-6, which is three wins behind the GOAT Michael Jordan, but another victory and he could surpass Jordan in one important area. James would become the first player to lead three different teams to championships, and if you’ve long been using titles to determine the identity of the greatest ever, there’s your evidence.

For the Lakers, however, these Finals will be as much about past trials as future glories. It is one thing to reach the final lap in a race for a championship. It is quite another to arrive at that milestone after spending a decade being knocked to your knees.

In the 10 years since they last appeared in the Finals, the Lakers have endured everything but locusts. They caused much of the chaos themselves, certainly, but nonetheless the ride has been an impossibly bumpy one. That they have hung on to return to greatness is one of their greatest achievements, and yet another indication that there may not be a more powerful and enduring franchise in all of American sports.

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In those 10 years, they have gone through seven coaches, a six-year playoff drought, three regime changes, and endured both the retirement and tragic death of the great Kobe Bryant. There has been fussing in the front office, anger on the bench, frustration in the stands, and a precipitous fall from grace that finally ended on a July night two summers ago.

That’s when Magic Johnson signed James.

The glamour had returned, but the greatness not yet, stalled as it was by James’ aching body and distracted demeanor. The franchise’s comeback required one more giant piece, and it boldly arrived one June day last summer.

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That’s when Rob Pelinka traded for Davis.

To these two glimmering cornerstones, the Lakers added the unassuming Vogel to coach them, and he was perfect for the task, quietly reminding his stars that their greatest challenge was themselves.

Highlights from the Lakers’ 117-107 win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Saturday.

They took the “Look in the mirror” edict to heart, and bonded like few Lakers teams since the Showtime era. While there is no true third Lakers star, several have played like one, from Rajon Rondo to Alex Caruso to Dwight Howard, all role players embraced, all empowered.

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“This is really high stakes,” Vogel said. “It’s an opportunity of a lifetime to be in this situation with the team that we have. And you know, we want to make the best of it.”

And so they have, returning back to the championship series that this franchise has long considered its birthright, back to potentially make more history, back to where they belong.

Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.

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