On Wednesday night, the NBA Finals will finally happen. It has been an unusual season in many respects; COVID has meant that we have seen teams battling against each other in the Bubble to try and reach the promised land. There are only two teams who remain, only one of these two can be the 2020 NBA Champions.
The Los Angeles Lakers started the season as one of leading favourites to win the title. The combination of LeBron James and Anthony Davis meant that Los Angeles had the top-end talent needed to win at the highest level from day one. However, it would be disingenuous to say that the Lakers have made the Finals on talent alone. Frank Vogel’s coaching cannot be understated.
Vogel was appointed without much fanfare; a lot of fans believed that Tyronn Lue was a more suitable candidate for the role. However, it was Vogel who took the job and he has not put a foot wrong since. He has engendered an excellent team culture.
Frank Vogel is not just a good culture guy; Vogel has displayed real tactical acumen in the playoffs. The Lakers have played big all year but Vogel dropped McGee and Howard against Houston. Davis and Markieff Morris in the front court meant that the Lakers were able to stay with the Rockets’ speed on defense.
It takes a lot of guts to make that decision promptly and decisively. A lot of coaches dither and hesitate when it comes to making wide scale changes during a series. Billy Donovan is a notable example of a coach who has dallied when it comes to tactical decisions.
Over the course of the playoffs, we have seen presumptive favourites crumble. The Milwaukee Bucks could not match the Heat’s intensity and were bounced in the second round. The Clippers floundered against the Nuggets and lost in seven games. It is only the Lakers out of this leading pack who have stayed the course.
The Western Conference was always viewed to be a battle of Los Angeles but the Eastern Conference was much harder to decide. The Bucks, Raptors and Celtics were all teams who were perceived to have the depth and strength to make the NBA Finals. It was a dark horse who managed to make it out of the Eastern Conference.
The Miami Heat have come from nowhere to be the East’s representative in the Finals. It has been one hell of a rise for a team that failed to make the playoffs last season. When I think back to the Heat towards the end of last season, I could not see a path to contention.
Miami had plenty of talented players but they did not have that alpha dog who could elevate his level of play in the most important moments of the game. Dwyane Wade was that player but he retired at the end of 2018-19 season.
The Heat got their leader and team defining star in the summer of 2019. Jimmy Butler has long been a controversial figure in the NBA. Butler has improved teams wherever he has been but his straight-talking, direct mode of address has been abrasive at times. Butler was viewed to be a disturbance in the locker room before he joined the Heat.
Miami did not view Butler in this way, the Heat saw Jimmy as a kindred spirit. Butler’s dedication to the grind marked him to be a Heat player even when he played on other teams. Butler heard about the Heat’s culture from Dwyane Wade and chose to make South Beach his home.
The Heat have been an ascendant force since that date. Butler has been a tone-setter for the team but there have been huge leaps in development for the Heat’s young players. Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Bam Adebayo have all been reliable, steady contributors despite their youth during Miami’s run to the Finals.
It is one of the most interesting series in years from a narrative perspective. You have LeBron facing off against his old team, the team who he won his first two championships with. You have Erik Spolestra and Frank Vogel battling in the Finals after spending years taking lumps out of each in the Eastern Conference.
Personally, I feel that the tactical battle is the most interesting aspect of this series. The common thinking of executives league wide across the last twenty years is that talent win titles. Golden State, Cleveland and Miami were all star-laden teams during their primes. These three teams are responsible for six titles since 2011.
The Lakers fit this model to a tee. Los Angeles have two pillars to rely on in the form of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. These are two guys who carry the heaviest burden on the team. The rest of the roster has been filled out with solid, experienced veterans.
Miami’s team building model is closer to the 2019 Toronto Raptors or the 2004 Detroit Pistons. There is no one outstanding star but rather a strong group of players who are more than capable of getting the job done when it matters most. The Heat have subscribed to a strength in depth approach.
We saw this approach work last season when Toronto defeated Golden State. The Raptors never ran short of quality players and were relentless in attacking the Warriors’ weaker bench unit. The Heat and Raptors are vastly different teams but they do share one important similarity.
The small forward position was a skeleton key for Toronto and the same goes for Miami. Before Leonard, Toronto just could not break the glass ceiling and make the Finals. Before Butler, Miami was trapped in a lottery purgatory. A team that was too good to tank but not good enough to make the playoffs.
Butler’s combination of size, defense and playmaking has given the Heat a potent weapon at this position. Butler’s versatility has unlocked the Heat’s capabilities on offense by providing Miami with another ball-handler who can do everything on the court.
The Heat’s depth means that they can go big against the Lakers. Miami can deploy Meyers Leonard or Kelly Olynyk to match the size that Howard presents. Olynyk is a riskier matchup due to his struggles when defending in space but Leonard is a viable proposition for the Heat.
Meyers Leonard has not played much during the last two series but he provides floor spacing and mobility at the center spot for the Heat.
This is just one of the options available to Coach Spolestra in terms of matching up defensively. Miami could also choose to stick with their current lineup and run Howard off the floor.
Miami can run actions with Bam Adebayo at the perimeter with the ball in his hands. At this location on the floor, Howard or McGee is a favourable match-up for Bam. Adebayo has the speed and skill to punish the Lakers’ bigs.
Anthony Davis and LeBron James are the two most important weapons for the Lakers and I expect these two players to receive the lion share of the ball during the game. The Heat are fortunate that the roster assembled by Pat Riley has players who can guard James or Davis pretty well.
Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala and Jimmy Butler all have the defensive smarts to slow LeBron down and force the Lakers’ offense to stagnate. Bam Adebayo’s mobility matches up nicely with Davis’ size. During the playoffs so far, Davis has been excellent at using his size to shoot over defenders. This will be much harder against a defender like Bam.
Davis and LeBron will get their shot creation, I am certain of this fact. However, Miami will make life difficult for the Lakers. The Heat’s defensive scheming will take away all easy looks for Los Angeles.
Both guys are competent outside shooters but it is not an area of the game where they excel. LeBron James has made a living by finishing looks at the rim at an extremely efficient rate. Anthony Davis is also a hugely effective presence inside.
The zone coverage that the Heat used against the Celtics will probably be deployed again. I have no doubt that James will have the energy to break the zone in the first few games of the series but whether he can continue to expend energy in the same way later in this series is a different manner.
It takes a lot of wherewithal to drive into a crowded painted area and take on three lengthy, tough defenders. LeBron James may get to a point where his legs are tired and he starts to settle for more available shots such as outside jumpers.
The Heat’s success in this series will also depend on whether Miami can take Rajon Rondo out of the game. Rondo has performed brilliantly in the playoffs and his steady production has provided the Lakers with a ball-handler who can relieve some pressure off LeBron James.
When Rondo is cooking, the Lakers are so much more difficult to stop as the ball recycles to a competent creator rather than someone like Kyle Kuzma or Kentavious Caldwell Pope. Miami have to sag off Rondo and pack the paint. Rondo’s value comes from his passing not scoring. The Heat have to make it difficult for Rondo to hit his receivers.
I think that this series will be won or lost at the defensive end of the floor. The Lakers and the Heat have been two of the most efficient offensive teams according to NBA Stats. Miami and Los Angeles both boast impressive offensive ratings.
The question for me is which team can disrupt their opponent’s rhythm and force offensive breakdowns. At this moment, I would argue that Miami have a slight advantage over the Lakers when it comes to defense in this series.
Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee contribute a lot to Los Angeles on defense, if these two guys are played off the floor, the situation on defense for the Lakers becomes a lot harder. It is another responsibility for Anthony Davis to carry. Davis already carries a huge load for the Lakers.
The Heat have someone who can match up well with Davis. Miami have a trio of gritty, experienced forwards who will make life difficult for LeBron. Perhaps, I am being a little reactionary with my views. The Heat have performed well against difficult competition recently so it is natural to overestimate their abilities.
However, I do not think I am a victim to the moment. The Heat have displayed the toughness and heart needed to win a title over the last two months. Miami knocked out the Bucks, why would they be scared of the Lakers? When a team has that combination of talent and self belief, it is one hell of a force.
I believe this will be a long series. I cannot see either side winning in five games. I have the Miami Heat winning in seven games against the Lakers.
Start Time: 9 P.M. (ET)