On paper, this 2020 NBA Finals matchup of Lakers vs. Heat might be deemed a mismatch, pairing a season-long juggernaut against a foe that only reached its full potential in the postseason. Of course, Bucks vs. Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals was supposed to be a mismatch, too, as was Celtics vs. Heat in the East finals.
Perhaps that’s why they actually play the games?
The point is, while Los Angeles joined the select ranks of championship favorites the moment it landed Anthony Davis to pair alongside LeBron James, Miami remains something of an underdog afterthought in the eyes of some, a plucky little bunch of overachieving scrappers certain to suffer the same fate as the Nuggets, Rockets and Trail Blazers before them — eventual roadkill under the leviathan wheels of those monolithic West Coast stars.
And yet, the Heat are not here by accident, having harnessed the prodigious talents of emerging star Bam Adebayo and the volcanic competitiveness of Jimmy Butler, and having translated their fitness fanaticism into crunch-time domination at just the right time.
While historical precedent does not look favorably upon Miami’s chances (only eight teams, including these Heat, have reached the Finals without a top-three seed, and just two have won it all), that doesn’t really count for much once the ball goes up and these teams square off between the lines on Wednesday night (7 p.m. MT, ABC).
Recent history may not count for much either, considering that while Los Angeles won both of the regular-season matchups, the Heat did not acquire key wing components Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala until after those games took place.
So then, what does this series come down to?
Well, on the Lakers’ side of the ledger, they will, of course, try to leverage the brilliance of James and Davis into efficient scoring; to utilize their elite defensive acumen and transform it into transition opportunities; and, perhaps most importantly, to capitalize on their significant size advantage by crashing the offensive glass and generating second-chance opportunities — they’ve grabbed almost 30% of their own misses in the playoffs, a key facet of their production when their traditional attack bogs down.
As for the Heat, they worked over Boston in the ECF every time they deployed their 2-3 zone — holding the Celtics to less than a point per possession in those situations — and they seem likely to deploy it again vs. an L.A. team that shot just 34.9% on 3-pointers this season and is not always known for its off-ball movement; meanwhile, though Miami was actually outscored overall in the series by the Celtics, the Heat were able to wear their opponent down and then capitalize late, as they were a combined plus-22 in the series’ fourth quarters (whereas the Lakers were a combined minus-4 post-halftime vs. Denver).
The schemes can only do so much, though. In the end, it’ll come down to the people being expected to execute them. So with that said, here’s a brief look at the matchups involved.
Point guard: Goran Dragic vs. LeBron James
OK, so The Dragon won’t be checking King James at any point unless a switch goes terribly awry, but these guys are the nominal PGs for their teams. Regardless, though the Slovenian is enjoying an incredible resurgence this postseason, averaging 20.9 points and 4.7 assists, he simply won’t be matching the production of one of the NBA’s all-time great triple-double machines. who’s putting up 26.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists in these playoffs.
Shooting guard: Duncan Robinson vs. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
The Miami wing is there to provide shooting, and he certainly does that — averaging 11.3 points this postseason while hitting 40% of his 3s on 7.3 attempts. He’s not much of a defender, though. As for KCP, while Lakers fans will perhaps never fully trust him, given his history of ill-advised shots in clutch moments, he’s been a solid, reliable 3-and-D option this time around.
Small forward: Jimmy Butler vs. Danny Green
After wearing out his welcome in Chicago and Minnesota, and never really meshing with Philly, the incendiary Butler appears to have found his ideal landing spot in Miami, where the intensity permeating the franchise from Pat Riley on down matches his own. He’s never going to be a great outside shooter, but he’s a reliable 20-ppg guy who gets to the FT line a lot, and consistently ranks among the league’s best in steals. Green, meanwhile, continues to be pretty awful in the playoffs, where he’s shooting just 35.5% overall.
Power forward: Jae Crowder vs. Anthony Davis
The 6-foot-6 Crowder doesn’t figure to have to check AD all that often, which is probably a good thing, considering the latter is putting up 28.8 points on 57.1% shooting. What Miami will be hoping for is Crowder hitting shots at a rate commensurate with what he did against Indiana and Milwaukee. After lighting it up from deep in those two series, his shooting beyond the arc plummeted to just 25.5% against Boston.
Center: Bam Adebayo vs. Dwight Howard
Just assuming Howard will get the nod in the starting five, given his level of play against Denver, though L.A. has also rolled with Davis, JaVale McGee, and Markieff Morris at the position this postseason. Regardless, Adebayo will have a far more expansive role as both the fulcrum of Miami’s offense, as well as the most likely 1-on-1 defender for Davis. He is averaging 18.5 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.2 steals.
The notion that Miami is deeper often passes unquestioned and unchecked, but in Game 6 against Boston, only Tyler Herro, Iguodala and Solomon Hill (for 5 minutes) came off the Heat bench. L.A., meanwhile, still often goes nine or 10 deep, with Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Morris and McGee all getting some run. That said, you can still more consistently count on what the Miami duo will provide, even if Herro hasn’t fully achieved “bucket” status quite yet.
Coach: Erik Spoelstra vs. Frank Vogel
It seems like Spoelstra is to NBA coaches what Joe Flacco was to NFL quarterbacks: Always in the midst of an “Is he elite?” debate. Regardless, Spo is a championship-winning coach who will be called upon to know what buttons to push against LeBron. As for Vogel, he’s been everything the Lakers could have hoped for after missing out on their first few targets last summer, with his defensive acumen legitimately making them among the league’s best on that end of the court.
Miami has a lot going for it during this postseason run — versatility on both ends, a roster stocked with solid-to-great outside shooters, guys who have not let the moment get too big for them, who have kept their poise and intensity up throughout, thus enabling big comebacks. And yet … while the Lakers really don’t have enough deep shooting for the modern game, and do have a precipitous drop-off in talent between their second- and third-best players, they nevertheless boast the top two talents in the series (one of whom is in his 10th Finals), an elite-level defense and a cadre of misfit complements who, while they won’t scare anyone, always seem to provide juuuuust enough production to augment the stars.
Prediction: Lakers in 6