The Lakers have felt Kobe Bryant's presence in the Orlando bubble.
The hashtag began to trend on Twitter moments after the Lakers defeated the Miami Heat, 102-96, Tuesday night to take a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals. After missing the postseason over the previous six seasons and having one of the worst records in the NBA over that time, the Lakers are now one win away from winning their first world championship in a decade.
LeBron James had 28 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists. Anthony Davis added 22 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists. But when the game was over, the focus for many Lakers fans on social media was Kobe Bryant.
It has been impossible not to think about Bryant during the Lakers' postseason run in the bubble.
When the Lakers defeated the Utah Jazz to win the Pacific Division for the 24th time, the final score was 116-108. If you add up the scores, you get 224. If you subtract the scores, you get 8.
Bryant, of course, wore 24 and 8 during his 20-year career with the Lakers, while his daughter, Gianna, wore 2.
When the Lakers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 4 of their first round series on Kobe Bryant Day (8/24), they took a 24-8 lead to start the game. "He's here in the building," James said after the game.
When Davis, wearing the Lakers' "Black Mamba" alternate jersey, hit a buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer to defeat the Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, he shouted, "Kobe." Davis not only channeled Bryant in that moment, but replicated what many fans have yelled over the years after throwing a crumpled ball of paper into the wastebasket or nailing a fadeaway jumper in the driveway.
"We're representing him," Davis said. "Especially in those jerseys."
The Lakers will be wearing their "Black Mamba" jersey on Friday when they can win their first championship since Bryant led the Lakers to the 2010 title with a Game 7 victory over the Boston Celtics. They were originally slated to wear their “road” purple uniforms, which is what Bryant wore when he won his fourth title in Orlando in 2009.
If James wins a championship this year, it will also be his fourth and also won in Orlando and his pathway towards the title will be similar to Bryant's with a second round victory over the Houston Rockets and a conference finals against the Nuggets.
None of this is lost on James, who wore a shirt honoring Bryant prior to Game 4 on Tuesday. He called the victory one of the biggest games of his life.
It has been hard to keep track of time during the pandemic. Being stuck at home has a way of blending days, weeks and months. With the Lakers in the NBA Finals and temperatures in Los Angeles hovering around 90 degrees this week, it's hard to not think it's June instead of October.
The Lakers' season began in October one year ago. That was also the last time I saw Bryant. It seems like it was more than 12 months ago with everything that has happened in 2020. I talked to Bryant in his office in Costa Mesa before the Lakers faced the Clippers in the season opener.
Bryant laughed when I asked him if he would be at the Lakers’ first game of the season. He said he would keep up with the score on his phone but he would be at a high school gym watching his 16-year-old daughter Natalia play volleyball.
“I’ll call (Lakers general manager) Rob (Pelinka) before the game and wish him the best of luck because it’s the start of a new season” Bryant said. “I’ll try to watch their game afterwards. I might look at the score on my phone but that’s about it.”
No one would be happier for Pelinka, his former agent, James, Davis and the entire Lakers family than Bryant, who had a feeling this would be a special season for his former team.
"The Lakers have two freaks of nature," Bryant said. "They're going to be fine. It's a hell of a time to be in L.A.”
It is but i's not the same without Bryant. His passing ripped the city's heart out and it hasn't fully recovered during a surreal year where nothing has gone right but the Lakers are one win away from finally giving L.A. something to cheer about.
Listen to “The Arash Markazi Show” on The Mightier 1090 Monday-Friday from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. You can also listen to the show later on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Play.