The Western Conference’s top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers and the East’s fifth-seeded Miami Heat both breezed into the NBA Finals, losing three times apiece in three rounds. This marks LeBron James’ 10th Finals appearance and first with the Lakers, who last played for the championship with Kobe Bryant in 2010. It is the Heat’s first Finals appearance since 2014, when James led them to the last of four straight title shots.
How they got here
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers cleared enough cap space to lure LeBron James in 2018 free agency and traded the cache of draft assets they collected in six straight trips to the lottery for Anthony Davis. That is how they got here, because as it turns out, all they really needed is James and Davis, two of the five best players in the league.
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka worked the margins to sign veteran help around his two superstars, including 30-somethings Danny Green, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard, who have six Finals appearances between them. They round out their rotation with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris and JaVale McGee, hardly the supporting cast you would expect on a dominant playoff run.
But the Lakers require little help beyond some added rim protection from Howard, playmaking from Rondo and passable 3-and-D help on the perimeter from their hodgepodge of wings, because James and Davis are averaging a combined 55.5 points (on 65.1 percent true shooting), 19.6 rebounds, 12.5 assists and 4.8 combined blocks and steals in the playoffs. They are the best two players in this series by a wide margin, and the Lakers are outscoring opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions with both of them on the court.
The small-ball Houston Rockets were the best of the three defenses the Lakers faced in the Western Conference playoffs, and they had no answer for either of L.A.’s monstrous stars. The Lakers had already blitzed a Portland Trail Blazers team that was running on fumes in the first round and lost Damian Lillard to injury, and a Denver Nuggets comeback against the L.A. Clippers eliminated the team best equipped to challenge James and Davis on paper. As far as playoff runs go, this was as smooth as it gets for the Lakers.
The Heat had a more difficult road after sweeping the undermanned Indiana Pacers in the first round, but they made it look just as easy. On the strength of a versatile defense and an arsenal of offensive weaponry, Miami trampled two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks in the second round. An equally well-balanced Boston Celtics team posed a bigger threat in the conference finals, but the Heat out-hustled and out-executed another favorite to win four close games in six tries.
The Heat have two stars of their own, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, who are defensively equipped to counter the L.A. stars, but Miami’s offense is more diversified. Butler, their leading scorer during the regular season, did not lead them in scoring in any of their six games against Boston. That was Adebayo, veteran former All-Star Goran Dragic and rookie Tyler Herro, who erupted for 37 points in a pivotal Game 4 victory.
Sharpshooter Duncan Robinson and the streakier Jae Crowder are also capable of pouring in a handful of 3-pointers on any given night, and we have yet to mention Andre Iguodala, the 36-year-old former Finals MVP who proved his trade value with 15 points on five shots in a closeout Game 6 against Boston.
It all came together in Orlando, where the Heat revealed an identity in the vein of team president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra — a well-conditioned collection of underdogs who fight for every possession. Add it all up, and the Heat have outscored opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, despite facing two of the three teams that finished the regular season ranked top 10 on both offense and defense.
Head to head
The Lakers won both regular-season meetings between the teams — a 95-80 stifling in early November and a 113-110 squeaker in mid-December — but neither were representative of this version of the Heat. Miami was still starting Kendrick Nunn and Meyers Leonard, neither of whom cracked the rotation in the conference finals. The Heat had also yet to acquire Crowder and Iguodala, and neither Herro nor Robinson was the player each would become in Orlando — a threat to erupt for a game-swinging string of buckets.
We do know this: James and Davis dominated their battle with Butler and Adebayo. Most of their respective time was spent defending each other, save for the minutes Lakers coach Frank Vogel stole with McGee and Howard on Adebayo. Their statistical totals in almost equal minutes over the two head-to-head meetings:
James/Davis: 112 points (55/50/74 shooting splits), 31 rebounds, 26 assists and nine blocks/steals
Butler/Adebayo: 68 points (46/0/67 shooting splits), 30 rebounds, 15 assists and 11 block/steals
If that trend were to continue, it would almost certainly spell a swift end to the Heat’s season, barring a barrage from their superior depth. How comfortable Dragic, Herro and Robinson can get carrying Miami’s offensive burden opposite the Lakers’ role players may hold the answer to how long this series persists.
Likely starting lineups
Spoelstra sorted through starting lineups after the trade deadline, entering the hiatus and into the bubble, where he prioritized Dragic’s dependability over Nunn’s inexperience, moved Adebayo to center and ditched Leonard for more help from Crowder on the wing, where Butler and Robinson have been mainstays.
That lineup has started every game of the playoffs, outscoring opponents by only 1.4 points per 100 possessions in 193 minutes, far less effective than the closing group that replaces Robinson with Herro. Neither lineup played a lick against the Lakers this season. It is unlikely Spoelstra veers from what has gotten Miami to this point, at least to start the series, even if Vogel plays a second center alongside Davis.
Spoelstra stuck with that lineup against a big Bucks frontline, despite its struggles, if only because the rotational depth he has worked in behind it has had such success obliterating deficits. The Heat did begin to lose faith in Crowder late in the conference finals, but a shift back to starting Leonard would be an in-series acknowledgement that McGee, Howard and the Lakers have dictated the terms of engagement.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have started three different lineups in the playoffs. McGee earned the starting center minutes in their first eight outings, before Vogel inserted Morris to finish off the final two games against the small-ball Rockets. They went back to McGee’s length and athleticism for their first three games against the Nuggets, only to swap in the bruising Howard to account for the considerable mass Nikola Jokic had thrown around.
James, Davis, Green and Caldwell-Pope have started all 15 games of the playoffs for the Lakers.
The Lakers started McGee to great success in their two games against the Heat during the regular season, but both came opposite Leonard. Vogel has twice discarded McGee from his playoff starting lineup already, a sign of his distrust. The most logical counter to Adebayo at center is Davis, which would most likely mean Morris returning to their version of a small-ball starting lineup alongside James, Green and Caldwell-Pope.
Matchups to watch
Anthony Davis vs. Bam Adebayo
There may be no better player built to stop Davis than Adebayo and no better player built to stop Adebayo than Davis. So, which player do you consider more unstoppable? It has to be Davis, a four-time First Team All-NBA selection who can score at all three levels, whereas Adebayo does the vast majority of his offensive damage in the paint. Adebayo has passed every trial in his first serious playoff minutes, but those mostly came against Myles Turner, Brook Lopez or Daniel Theis. This is the Finals, and this is Anthony Davis.
According to Second Spectrum, Adebayo spent roughly 35 possessions defending Davis over 9:37 in their two regular-season meetings. Davis scored 15 points on 14 shots and added three assists against zero turnovers, as the Lakers scored 1.23 points per possession. In the nearly 23 possessions over 5:26 that Davis spent on Adebayo, the Heat center was 0-for-3 from the field, scoring four points on eight foul shots and committing two turnovers to his single assist. Miami scored 0.8 points per possession in that time. Those are untenable figures for the Heat. Adebayo must be better, and he may well be nine months later.
LeBron James vs. Jimmy Butler
An interesting stat was going around after the Heat eliminated the Celtics on Sunday: James and Butler have split 34 meetings in their careers, 17 games apiece. A closer look reveals 11 of them have come in the playoffs, where James is 8-3 against Butler, winning of a pair of second-round series against the Chicago Bulls. Again, a Heat star matches up well with his Lakers counterpart, but well may not be good enough.
Butler’s best asset offensively is his ability to get to the rim and draw fouls, which he now must do against James, an elite rim protector for his position who is notorious for his ability to avoid collecting fouls. He is averaging just 1.8 personal fouls in these playoffs, the lowest of his career, mostly because he rarely guarded the opposing team’s best player in the first three rounds. How often he draws Butler in the Finals will largely depend on how often Butler is attacking and how close the games are in crunch time. James defended Butler for 28 possessions over 7:27 in their two meetings this season; Butler scored two points.
Conversely, Butler is a ferocious defender who gives up two inches and 20 pounds to James, who can also score at all three levels and command a game without scoring. He is a nightmare matchup for anyone, even Butler, a four-time All-Defensive selection. The Heat will send Crowder, Iguodala and even Adebayo at James, but Butler is their best chance of containing him. In 41 possessions over 10:13 against Butler during the regular season, James had 16 points and nine assists, as his Lakers scored 1.69 points per possession.
The battle of the 3-point line
The Heat were the second-most accurate 3-point shooting team in the NBA this season, shooting 37.9 percent on 35.4 attempts per game — a hair behind the Utah Jazz. That is no thanks to Butler and Adebayo, who combined for less than one triple per game. Robinson, Herro, Dragic and Crowder do much of the damage, and they have combined to make 10.7 threes per game at a 37 percent clip in the playoffs.
Robinson and Herro are especially lethal. They must be accounted for at all times, and chasing them around Miami’s motion-heavy offense can be exhausting. It was a daunting task for a Celtics team full of capable wing defenders and will be even more so for Lakers wings Caldwell-Pope, Green and Caruso.
Conversely, the Lakers ranked among the bottom 10 in 3-point shooting this season, converting 34.9 percent of their 31.6 attempts. They have shot roughly the same in the playoffs. The difference in 3-point volume and efficiency resulted in an additional 7.8 points per 100 possessions for the Heat during the regular season, a net gain that has slimmed to a margin of 5.7 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs.
How the Heat can win
The Lakers have survived that 3-point discrepancy because of the sheer domination of James and Davis, but if Butler and Adebayo can mitigate the damage L.A.’s stars can do, the rest of the Heat can swing games with their accuracy. Miami is 8-0 when shooting better than 37 percent from deep as a team and 8-1 when making 13 or more threes in a game. The Lakers have enjoyed similar success at those benchmarks, only they reach them less often. The Heat’s success will be heavily reliant on their more reliable explosiveness from distance, but Butler and Adebayo must ensure that advantage matters.
How the Lakers can win
How decisively James and Davis can be the best two players in this series will decide how long it goes, because Miami can claim the next five or six most impactful players on a given night. That puts pressure on the Lakers’ third-best player, whoever it may be, to enter the fray. Easier to rely on one plus game apiece from the likes of Green, Caldwell-Pope, Rondo and Kuzma, rather than a nightly collective effort from the Heat, or so the theory goes in favoring the Lakers. Such is the sway of James and Davis’ dependability.
Lakers in six (-358 favorites).
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