If the first three rounds of the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2020 NBA playoffs were video game levels, slowly building up your skillset and testing you, then consider the Miami Heat the ultimate final boss. Wednesday evening marks game one of what should be an extraordinarily rugged and competitive NBA Finals for Los Angeles. Also, it’s perhaps the ultimate test for LeBron James in his quest for a fourth ring.
This series is James’s tenth Finals appearance and number nine in his last ten seasons. It’s a remarkable feat matched by only legends such as Bill Russell, Sam Jones, and other Boston Celtics from the 50s/60s. In his 17th season, he found another way to keep father time at bay. James led the league in assists and put on vintage performances such as his 38-point triple-double in last Saturday’s closeout win. James finally seemed to revert to his usual playoff form these previous two weeks. However, he needs to bring out A-grade performances in every Heat game if he wants to see Los Angeles holding the Lary O’Brien trophy.
The Heat is not the Nuggets, Rockets, or Blazers. All three defeated opponents had weaknesses centering around a lack of wing depth, inadequate defense, and inconsistent shooting. Miami has very few, if any, shortcomings. They play the perfect brand of team basketball: any one player can lead them in scoring (see Tyler Herro, Goran Dragic, etc.). They have a closer in Jimmy Butler, who is a certified baller on both ends, and a versatile two-way center in Bam Adebayo.
James had his way with anyone guarding him in the playoffs so far. Observe his 54.7% field goal percentage, ranking third-best of any playoffs in his career. Pull back the curtain, though, and you’ll see he’s had the likes of Gary Trent Jr, Carmelo Anthony, Jeff Green, and Jerami Grant as his primary defenders in each game. Hard-working lengthy players for sure, but not at the level necessary to slow down one of the league’s strongest players. James now has to contend with Butler, someone who knows him well and has seen defensive playoff success against him.
He held James to 45% shooting in the 2011 ECF, 44% in the 2013 East semis, and just 40% in the 2015 East semis. Butler is a physical and crafty defender who won’t let James get to his favorite spots with ease. Not to mention Miami also has veterans such as Andre Iguodala (guarded James for five straight Finals from 2014-18), Jae Crowder (decent size and mobility), and Derrick Jones Jr. (revitalized as a defensive specialist) to toss at James for all 48 minutes.
As for Davis, he’s also had the luxury of feasting on mismatches. Against Portland, he had either the talented but slow Jusuf Nurkic or the undisciplined Hassan Whiteside. In the Houston matchup, Davis devoured the way-too-small P.J. Tucker and Jeff Green. Finally, he battled Nikola Jokic, whose best skills are on the offensive end. Now, he has to deal with Adebayo, a coaches’ defensive dream. Adebayo is an uber-athletic beast capable of using his speed and strength to battle Davis and force him to take contested jumpers. Bam also can provide tremendous off-ball help on drives from LeBron and others. If you need further proof, note game one of the East Finals, when Adebayo came over for the game-saving block on Jayson Tatum. The scary part is he’s only getting better.
Then there’s the added factor of Miami’s 2-3/3-2 zone. Miami deployed it successfully by stymying the Celtics in the last round, forcing bad jumpers and turnovers. It works because they have all five guys committed to constant movement and communications, limiting passing lanes and closing out well on shooters. The Lakers shot 35.5% from three-point range in these playoffs, second-worst of any team with at least ten games. Who is the worst? The Boston Celtics, who just fell to the Heat.
For the Lakers to beat the zone, they’ll need to get LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Rajon Rondo the ball in crucial spots. They need the ball at the foul line and other sides of the zone, so they can attack the lane for looks at the rim or kick to open shooters. Davis is tall enough to get the ball 12-15 feet from the basket and shoot over anyone, and LeBron is LeBron. He’ll get to the rim when he wants. But can up-and-down shooters like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Danny Green make enough shots to swing the series for the Lakers? We’re about to find out.
This Miami Heat team deserves to be in these Finals. You can’t call this a fluke or a result of the bubble. Their excellent team basketball proves they would’ve made it regardless of if they had to play in front of other fans. Milwaukee was still going to have the same problems surrounding Giannis, and Boston was always going to be a piece or two short.
This series will not be effortless for the Lakers, despite what oddsmakers think. (They are almost 3-to-1 favorites to walk out of the bubble with rings). Miami is a super well-balanced, deep team with a top-5 coach in Erik Spoelstra, who coached James for four years and knows his preferences. To pull away and ultimately win the series for Los Angeles, they’ll need to play optimally with minimal mistakes.
The Heat might be the ultimate final boss in the video game sense, but there are no re-dos or extra lives in the NBA Finals, unlike the virtual world. Let the games begin.
Game one of the NBA Finals begins Wednesday, 9/30, at 9 PM ET on ABC/YouTube TV.
Feature image courtesy of FanSided.