This is not the NBA Finals preview we expected to write heading into the season because this had never happened in NBA history: Two teams that were 10 seeds a season ago, two teams completely out of the playoffs, are competing in the NBA Finals one year later.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat both have the advantages of market and management, and both used that leverage last offseason to land big stars — Anthony Davis and Jimmy Butler — who could lead them back to this point.
The Lakers and Heat meet in an interesting chess match of a Finals — the Lakers have the two best players in the series, but the Heat have the better ensemble and have thrived in the bubble. Miami also creates some matchup challenges the Lakers have yet to see this postseason.
Here are the five things to watch, five things that will help decide the 2020 NBA Finals (with my prediction at the end).
1) Bam Adebayo vs. Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis has been the best offensive player so far in the playoffs — he is averaging 28.8 points per game and is scoring with ease from all three levels. He’s a devastating finisher at the rim, he is hitting 36.6% from three (on 2.7 attempts a game), and when he gets the ball and faces up he’s been unstoppable, including from the midrange. Portland and Denver went big but slower against him, Houston has no center, and none of those teams had an answer for Davis.
Miami has Bam Adebayo.
No one player will stop Davis, but Adebayo is an All-Defensive Team player with the length, instincts, and athleticism to make Davis work. Adebayo is a fantastic isolation defender, by far the best Davis has faced this postseason. Davis will get the ball and drive, but the buckets will not come as easily — ask Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“Bam is a great player, Davis said of Adebayo. “Bam is a lot like [Nikola] Jokic. He handles the ball a lot, pushes them on the breaks for them, he makes great passes, scores. He’s like their energy guy as well. So, it’ll be fun. Two Kentucky guys. Coach Cal [John Calipari] probably texted and called me enough about that.
But it’s going to be a fun matchup… That team leans on him a lot. I think it was Game 4 where he took that pressure, and took the blame for not playing well, and ended up losing. And he comes out in Game 5 and almost had a triple-double.”
When the Heat have the ball, Adebayo is at the heart of Miami’s attack — he was the difference in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against Boston — and like Davis, he attacks the rim. Davis can defend him but it’s going to require a lot of energy on the defensive end.
Miami likely will use Jae Crowder to guard Davis at times as well, they will go under every pick and play back in the paint, daring Davis and the Lakers to be jump shooters. It’s the right strategy, but the way Davis is playing he will make Miami pay anyway.
2) Miami’s shooters get red hot
The Lakers have been a fantastic defensive team through the playoffs in part because they are quick on their rotations, scramble well when things break down, and they don’t give up a lot of threes (32.9 attempts per game, second-lowest in the playoffs).
If Miami is going to win this series, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, and the rest of the Miami shooters are going to have to change that dynamic. The Heat have to keep moving to get open then shoot over the top of the Lakers’ defense all series, stretching their defense across the court.
“The way they move off the ball, they share the ball,” LeBron said of things that have impressed him about the Heat. “Everyone is live on the floor. There’s not one guy that you can disrespect or be off throughout the course of an offensive possession. And they do a hell of a job of moving without the ball, sharing the ball, cutting, passing.”
The Lakers have length, but do they have a defender who can stay in front of this Goran Dragic — the guy in the bubble playing like the All-NBA version of himself from six years ago? If he gets into the paint and hits a few shots, the Lakers’ defense will collapse down and suddenly, two quick passes and Heat shooters will have an open three. That’s bad news for L.A.
Miami was streaky from deep against Boston — Herro had a great game but Miami shot under 30% from deep in games two, three, and four — and they can’t be against the Lakers. Miami’s chances in this series hinge on its ability to shoot lights out.
3) Lakers dominating the offensive glass
The Los Angeles Lakers have grabbed the offensive rebound on 29.7% of their missed shots these playoffs, and those second-chance points have helped fuel their run to the Finals. With Davis and JaVale McGee/Dwight Howard up front, the Lakers’ size inside has been a problem for teams. Even big teams. It’s been all season long.
Pat Riley used to tell his Showtime Lakers “no rebounds, no rings,” and that will apply to his Heat now — if Miami doesn’t keep the Lakers off the offensive glass they will lose. Miami plays with incredible energy (which has helped them on the offensive glass at critical points), and they will need to focus that energy on the boards this series.
4) Jimmy Butler and Heat try to make LeBron a jump shooter
The most telling action to watch in this series is how Miami defends the LeBron/Davis pick-and-roll.
The Heat got to the Finals playing zone defense (more on that is a few paragraphs) and being a switching team in man-to-man. However, they may look like more of a basic drop defense against the Lakers — go under the pick, pack the paint and protect it, and dare the Lakers to become jump shooters.
Especially LeBron. The problem is, back off LeBron and he sees a runway. That is where Butler comes in — he has to have a fantastic defensive series keeping LeBron from taking over (and it’s fair to question if he still has the athleticism to do it, even against an age 35 Lebron). Guys have been trying to find a way to slow LeBron for 17 seasons, and with limited success. For Miami to have a chance, Butler (and to a lesser degree Andre Iguodala) will have to make him work hard for his points.
“He’s seen everything,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of LeBron. “At this point in his career, it’s just about winning. And his ability to do what he does at his age is incredibly uncommon. But there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to be able to maintain that.”
LeBron will hunt for switches and try to get Herro or Robinson on him — he is relentless at forcing the matchup he wants (even if Miami is fairly good at avoiding the switch). The Heat rookies could be in for a long series.
Then there is the Miami zone.
Miami will use it to protect the paint — pack it in a little, take away lanes for LeBron to drive, remove passing lanes to cutters, and try to take LeBron out of his comfort zone. The challenge is Miami likes to put its bigger wings out top in the zone to overwhelm smaller ball handlers (think Boston’s Kemba Walker), but that’s not going to work against LeBron. Still, the Lakers have not done as well against a zone in the playoffs (less than a point per possession, but just 30 possessions according to Second Spectrum tracking data, so it’s small sample size theater). The Lakers will need to figure it out, as Boston eventually did, because the Heat will run it until the Lakers beat it.
5) Which team stays out of foul trouble
Nobody ever pities the referees, but they are in for a brutal series.
Both the Lakers and Heat attack the paint and put pressure on the officials to make calls — and the Lakers have fouled a lot these playoffs. Both teams will target getting key opponents in early foul trouble — watch the Davis/Adebayo matchup in particular and LeBron/Butler. Both teams will be physical.
“You got to be smart about ticky-tacky fouls,” Adebayo said.
How games are officiated — is it called tight, or do they let them play a little? — will mean a lot in this series.
Expect a lot of complaining — from players, from coaches, and from fans — about the officiating. Expect letters and video to be sent to the league by both teams. Expect fines for complaining.
Despite what fans think, the referees will work to be impartial in the NBA Finals, but it’s going to be hard for the referees to stay out of the middle of this series.
Prediction: Lakers in six. As many problems as Miami poses for the Lakers, LeBron will figure out the puzzle.