It’s been (relatively) fun, bubble ball. And while these Finals don’t quite boast the same coast-to-coast cachet as bestowed by a favorable Miami-to-Los Angeles flight plan, the Lakers and Heat are set to produce a pretty memorable championship series under these strange circumstances. The Lakers by most measures are the superior team, but the Heat have largely been a revelation in the Orlando bubble, and have coalesced as a formidable opponent at the right time. Here are five keys to the series to keep in mind for Los Angeles, who enter as favorites, but still have work to finish.
1. The Bam-Davis dynamic
The matchup between LeBron James and Jimmy Butler might dominate the Finals discourse, but the more intriguing (and potentially more consequential) variable is how often and for how long the Lakers decide to pit Anthony Davis directly against Bam Adebayo. Frank Vogel correctly inserted Dwight Howard into the rotation against the Nuggets as a foil to Nikola Jokic, allowing Davis to float dangerously all over the floor and absolving him from banging around inside for a full 40 minutes. This led to some shockingly low rebounding numbers for Davis, but it didn’t really matter in the end, with Howard successfully baiting Jokic into fouls and doing the dirty work. Davis’s usage in that respect should be more consequential against the Heat and Adebayo, who is earning his keep as one of the league’s better rebounders, with athletic gifts, toughness, and the ability to start the break off the defensive glass. Their battle will be a central element of this series, and a treat to watch.
Adebayo’s ability to face up slower centers was on full display at the end of Miami’s Game 6 dismissal of Boston, and he will demand far more physical work from whoever the Lakers assign to defend him than the dominant-yet-plodding Jokic, who takes over games with his skill and smarts. Accounting for Adebayo when Miami’s perimeter ball movement is peaking is a tricky task, and in the fourth quarter and other stretches that matter most, that assignment should fall on Davis, who is an ideal physical match. The Lakers are also a more dynamic offensive team when Davis plays center, which opens up more space in the paint and helps maximize James’ immaculate passing vision. Nobody in the West has found a direct answer for Davis in these playoffs and Adebayo swung the Boston and Toronto series in Miami’s favor with his versatility. At some point, there will be a head-to-head matchup, and responsibility will fall on Davis to tip the scales.
2. Maintaining shot selection
Some data tidbits I found interesting: according to NBA.com’s Second Spectrum tracking data, through 15 playoff games, the Lakers drive to the rim just 32.6% of the time—the least of any team in the league. They convert those opportunities at the highest rate (55.7%), and still average more paint touches per game than any playoff team. They’ve also averaged fewer points on pull-up jumpers per game than anyone else.
The recipe works because LeBron James and Anthony Davis are simply that good, and make for a singular fit that has allowed the Lakers to get this far with a ragtag supporting cast. James’s playoff usage rate hovers around 30%, with Davis just behind him at 28.3% — numbers that fall almost exactly in line with their regular season performance. Thanks primarily to James’ extrasensory passing, Davis’s genius as a post-up player, and timely transition play, the Lakers cultivate highly efficient results despite a playstyle that’s not inherently modern or creative.
The Lakers are making two-thirds of all shots inside 10 feet, creating lots of open jumpers off ball movement, and (with apologies to Kyle Kuzma and J.R. Smith) have successfully exhumed nearly all difficult shots from its diet, apart from those taken by their two stars. This is not particularly pretty to watch, but it is ruthlessly efficient, and particularly tenable when you employ two first-ballot Hall of Famers. They aren’t jacking threes or forcing their way to the foul line, but they’re opportunistic, and the role players know how and when to get out of the way. There are no surprises coming from the Lakers.
Miami is better-equipped to try and counter the dual superstars than Houston and Denver before them—if you had to design a Davis-stopper, it would look a lot like Adebayo, and with Butler, Jae Crowder, and a wizened Andre Iguodala (not to mention Bam in switch situations) the Heat have four feasible players to throw at James over the course of the series in an attempt to slow him down. Miami has proven its mettle defensively, but the Lakers aren’t the Celtics, who too often looked like a team without a defined late-game recipe for success. Expect LeBron and Davis to try and set a tone early in the series and force the Heat to experiment on the fly.
3. Will everyone (else) keep making threes?
You could show half of a random Lakers game to someone who’s never watched a basketball game in their life, and that person would probably be able to tell you that James and Davis drive the team, full stop. So to be as clear as possible, this is not to imply that “make your threes” is some revolutionary suggestion as to how to win a basketball game. Through 15 playoff games, the Lakers have made 35.5% of their threes, which is more than viable. Of course, a lot of the looks they’re getting are wide open, thanks to the commotion their superstars create for opposing defenders, which is an easy recipe for getting results out of league-average shooters.
Still, when you go down the list and see Rajon Rondo making 44% of his threes, Markieff Morris making 43.6% and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at 42.1% (all performing well above their career averages), it does hammer home the need for the Lakers to finish the deal as a collective. Alex Caruso, Kuzma, and to a lesser extent, Danny Green have underperformed shooting from distance. Expect Miami to keep mixing in zone looks to keep L.A. off balance, which will crowd the paint for James and Davis and force the supporting cast to move the ball and make shots in halfcourt situations. So far, the other Lakers have been up to task, but that consistency will be crucial against the well-drilled and very much in-shape Heat, who have closed out games better than anyone else in the bubble. Conversely, the Lakers have often started games strong and finished slowly. Staying the course in tough pockets of games can’t fall solely on the superstars.
4. Stay committed defensively
The Heat can be particularly difficult to guard not only because of how many of their players can beat you on a given night, but because none of them seem to care who takes the shots when it counts. Miami’s unselfish, ball-movement heavy style (they lead the bubble in average passes per game) has led to big nights for key supporting players like Tyler Herro, Goran Dragic and Duncan Robinson. Jimmy Butler is the Heat’s best player and nominal “closer”, but he’s also been their fourth-leading scorer, comfortably ceding the ball when necessary and setting the tone for everyone else to follow suit. It’s made the Heat unpredictable when it matters most, and points to the value of employing multiple playmakers and versatile shot-makers at all times. It’s almost antithetical to the way the Lakers funnel their offense through two players, and should create some aesthetic intrigue.
In the Denver series, L.A. could gear its defensive efforts toward making Jamal Murray’s life difficult, being physical with Jokic, and living with the other Nuggets making shots. With the exception of Herro (who hasn’t looked like a rookie at all), the Heat are much more experienced, and pose a greater stylistic challenge that will require a team-wide increase in effort. Rondo and Caruso have been defensively solid, and L.A. can deploy LeBron on Butler as necessary. But given their current form, the Heat might be the most challenging matchup the Lakers have faced. Miami carved up Boston with constant off-ball cutting, and without added focus, L.A. could struggle to do the same, at least in the early part of the series.
5. The LeBron factor
This will be the stiffest test the Lakers have faced in the entire bubble—the Heat are hungry, relatively fresh, and better-positioned than any of L.A.’s playoff opponents to date. The series’ interpersonal connections revolving around James and the Heat may heighten the tensions. Obviously, Erik Spoelstra is intimately familiar with the ins and outs of LeBron’s game. There’s a lot going on, but little question about the central storyline here.
The book on defending James, fundamentally, isn’t new. Miami will dare him to take tough jumpers, attempt to wall off the paint, and limit his playmaking damage as much as possible. Jimmy Butler will likely match up on James a good amount. But one concept for the Heat to consider (if you’re reading this, Pat Riley): try throwing Adebayo on James (as opposed to Davis), in stints, and season to taste. If the Lakers have Howard or JaVale McGee on the floor, Miami can dust off Meyers Leonard or Kelly Olynyk and free up Adebayo for other work. Adebayo’s agility and length might be the Heat’s best chance of taking away some of LeBron’s passing lanes. Stopping Davis then becomes a team effort, where a forward works to keep him away from his spots, and help defenders commit on the catch, forcing other Lakers to make shots. It’s a worthy experiment, and with the Heat having already used Adebayo on Giannis Antetokounmpo in similar fashion, I’d bet we see it.
At the end of the day, if LeBron performs like the best player in a given series, the Lakers as constituted have more than enough to win. Davis’s presence grants James some margin for error, and has come in concert with LeBron’s stylistic adjustment as a functional full-time point guard, playmaking for teammates and relying less than ever on his athletic ability, which remains potent, but has begun to wane ever slightly. His advanced age manifests most often when trying to beat opponents off the dribble—he’s not exploding past you and flying to the rim from a standstill much anymore, but there’s been enough shooting around him, as well as an incomparable safety valve in Davis, that he simply doesn’t have to force things as much. While James struggled individually in Game 4 against Denver, his performance closing the series out in Game 5 left little question that the road to the title still runs through him. Ultimately, the Lakers need that to hold true.