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Five Things to Watch for in the NBA Finals

by Josh Mullenix | @TheJMULL_

The Los Angeles Lakers had one major roadblock on their path to the NBA Finals. Well, they were supposed to in the form of in-city counterpart Los Angeles Clippers. But the Denver Nuggets cleared that hurdle for them, putting the Lakers in three series in which they were heavily favored. The result is a 12-3 playoff record and three uneventful playoff series. 

The Miami Heat, on the other hand, have looked just as impressive, also boasting a 12-3 playoff record. The difference is that they beat two teams that most people thought they would lose to. Not only did they beat Giannis’ Bucks and Tatum’s Celtics, but they did it with the utmost control and while looking like the best team on the floor.

Now, they meet in the Finals. It might not be expected, but there are lots of reasons to consider this a hotly contested series. There is a backstory, the last time the Heat went to the Finals they were led by LeBron. Eight years and a Pat Riley blow-up later, he’s in a Lakers jersey and in the Finals against him. 

The Heat keep beating teams they weren’t supposed to and the Lakers keep dispatching teams they were never supposed to fall to. This series might be a combination of the two, but ultimately, which trend continues? Let’s dive into five things that might help answer that question.

  1. The Lakers have two superstars, but the Heat have four of the top six players in this series. Which one matters more?

If you were to list the 10 best players in this series, LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be one and two and that’s not debatable. However, the next four players, at least, would be guys who have “Heat” taped to their chest. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro would go on that list before any other Lakers were considered. Next might come Playoff Rajon Rondo but then you hop right back to a Miami player. The point is, the Lakers have the superstar power in this series. While the Heat don’t have a superstar, at least not yet, they have four guys who have performed as four of arguably the top 12 players in these playoffs.

So, the question is which one of those things matter more. No one on the Heat is averaging more than 20.9 points per game in these playoffs, but six players are averaging more than 11.3 points per contest. On the flip side, Davis and Lebron are scoring 28.8 and 26.7 points, respectively, and pulling down a combined 19.6 rebounds and dishing out 12.5 assists. 

What ultimately might answer this question is a completely separate group of players: the Lakers’ role players. The biggest question coming into these playoffs for the Lakers was if those role players were going to give Davis and LeBron enough help. The answer has been a resounding yes. Seven different players are averaging between 5.3 and 10.5 points per game and that doesn’t include JaVale McGee, who has also played substantial minutes during these playoffs. If the Alex Carusos, Rondos, Kyle Kuzmas of the world play well in the Finals, that goes a long way into determining the winner of this series and minimizing the impact of Miami’s depth. These two teams were put together behind two completely different roster-building philosophies. Which one is better? We’re about to find out.

  1. Anthony Davis vs. Bam Adebayo

On the list of players I’d like to have to guard Anthony Davis, not many are higher than Bam Adebayo. Similarly, on the list of players I’d like to have to guard Bam Adebayo, not many are higher than Anthony Davis. In summary, this matchup is going to be incredible. In two games this season against the Heat, Davis is averaging 29.5 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Meanwhile, Adebayo is averaging 11.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists. Davis has been able to limit Adebayo on the offensive end but not drastically impact his playmaking or rebounding. 

Davis has been the best offensive player in the playoffs so far, but he’s also played against some less than stellar defensive big men or guys like P.J. Tucker who are a good five inches shorter than he is. Adebayo has the strength, length and defensive instincts to really bother Davis and then has the ability to put pressure on him on the offensive end of the floor. Yes, Davis has guarded Nikola Jokic in these playoffs, but that’s a star who’s known for his ability to be point center and put you in weird situations. Bam isn’t going to try and trick Davis with anything but he is going to make him really work on both ends of the floor. Davis can have a tendency to settle for outside jump shots and not get to the rim like he should every time down the floor. Does Bam make him lean on that tendency because of how tough things are on the interior? 

Of course, Jae Crowder will get some time on AD and Dwight Howard/Javale McGee will see minutes on Bam, but this matchup between two former Kentucky stars might just be the difference in this series. 

  1. Goran Dragic, and the Heat backcourt, could be the biggest difference maker.

There aren’t many components of this series where the Heat have the overwhelming advantage, but the backcourt is one of them. The Lakers very much survive in the backcourt by committee. Rondo, Caruso, KCP and Danny Green make up the parts of a whole that has been functional and serviceable during these playoffs. However, the Heat have three guys that are really, really good and do different things really well. 

Goran Dragic has been the best offensive player in the playoffs for Miami. He’s leading the team in points while dishing out 4.7 assists and pulling down 4.2 rebounds per game. He’s lethal in the pick and roll and the Lakers guards don’t scream lockdown defender even though all four of the guys I’ve mentioned certainly contribute to a really good Lakers defense. Dragic can shoot it, pass it, get down hill and put a lot of pressure on a defense.

Tyler Herro has also been spectacular in these playoffs, averaging 16.5 points 3.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds. He is a player that the Lakers actually have to scheme for, to a certain extent, and they can’t hide a bad defender on him because he’ll make them pay. He can score from all levels: getting to the rim, pulling up in the mid-range and knocking down threes. His playmaking abilities also add another dimension to this Heat offense. And then there’s Duncan Robinson, who is going to make someone chase him around screens for the 27.2 minutes, on average, he’s in the game. The Lakers at the very least need a willing defender for that role. Miami doesn’t have to be scared of L.A.’s backcourt on the offensive end, their focus will be on LeBron and AD. However, the Lakers absolutely have to scheme for this backcourt that makes up a large chunk of the 10 best players in this series. 

  1. That Miami Heat Zone

And now, we get to the elephant in the room. I put the zone at No. 4 not because the three things above it matter more, but because those three things above it all play into this point in one way or another. The Heat zone gave Boston major issues and was ultimately one of the biggest reasons they are in the Finals. They forced a less than stellar 3-point shooting team into taking a lot of threes and Boston wasn’t aggressive enough against the zone. They forced turnovers, a lot of them, and the Celtics never got to the point they needed to in order to win the series.

The Lakers offense has some similarities. They aren’t a great shooting team, but they do have a lot of guys who either shoot a lot or are known for settling for jumpshots. The Lakers are 12th in the playoffs in 3-point shooting and are turning over the basketball to the tune of 15.9 cough-ups per game. But at the end of the day, Los Angeles has LeBron James. There are very few smarter basketball players than James and he is going to attack the zone in a way that it hasn’t been attacked yet and, quite frankly, figure it out in one way or another.

Here’s the other big difference: The Lakers are defined by their big guys — including LeBron in this context. Meanwhile, the Celtics are defined by their perimeter players and they play the center position by committee. Unlike most zones, the Heat zone very much operates in a way to put pressure on the perimeter. The middle of the zone is WIDE. OPEN. The only issue for Boston is that the guy they were putting there was Daniel Theis. No disrespect to Theis, but the Heat could get away with that. If James and Davis is able to sit in the middle of that zone and find other Laker bigs on the back side of the zone where Miami’s smallest defenders will be, then the Heat could be in trouble. Davis is also shooting 50.6% on mid-range shots in these playoffs taking almost six of them per game. That free-throw line jumper is also wide open and Davis will take it without hesitation.

The Heat, of course, won’t play the zone all the time. Their man-to-man defense actually sets up pretty well. They have bodies like Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala to guard Lebron and we’ve talked about Bam’s ability to guard Davis. They have the personnel to play straight up man, but what stifled the Celtics was that zone. Let’s see what it can do to the Lakers.

  1. Lakers in 7

Here’s what I won’t do, I won’t bet against LeBron in the playoffs until LeBron gives me a reason to bet against him. Ultimately, Los Angeles’ star power will be just a little too much for the Heat combined with the serviceable production from the rest of the Lakers’ role players. 

This series is going to be close. Erik Spoelstra is too good of a coach that knows how LeBron operates and the Heat are playing too well to fade out in the Finals. The Heat outplayed the Celtics at the end of every game after fighting to keep things close for the first 40 minutes, they aren’t going to outplay LeBron late in games in the Finals, it just isn’t going to happen enough and they won’t get as many games to go their way late. 

LeBron gets his fourth, AD gets his first and the Lakers return to the top of the sport.

Los Angeles in seven.

Photos: Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons

All-Pro Reels / Flickr

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