So here we are, a year after teams reported to training camp, set to finish the wildest, most unpredictable season in NBA history. Many expected the Lakers to be here, with LeBron James teaming up with Anthony Davis to form one of the league’s most feared duos. Fewer would have bet on the Heat, a team that, like L.A., missed the playoffs last season and entered this one with a lot of unproven talent. But here we are, with James looking to knock off (one of) his former teams, with Miami looking to complete one of the most remarkable post-dynasty rebuilds in recent memory.
What to look for in this series? Let’s try to answer some questions.
Will there be an asterisk attached to this championship?
No. Hell no. It was one thing to ponder an asterisk before the NBA’s restart, when players were trickling into Orlando and the threat of a COVID-19 related stoppage seemed like a possibility. But now? Teams have largely been healthy. The games have been played at high level, higher, perhaps, than usual due to the elimination of travel, and the wear-and-tear that comes with it. Throw in the mental hurdle of finishing the season in isolation and there’s an argument to be made that not only is there no asterisk attached to this championship, it should be considered arguably the most difficult title any team has ever won.
Would a title be LeBron James’s most significant achievement?
The bucket of James’s “significant achievements” is overflowing. There’s the 2007 Cavaliers team that made the Finals with a 22-year old James flanked by Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes. There’s the back-to-back championships won in Miami. There’s the rally from 3-1 down to knock off a 72-win Warriors team in 2016. There’s the ten—ten!—Finals appearances, rarified air previously only occupied by Bill Russell, Sam Jones and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Yet there’s a strong case to be made that a title is James’s most notable accomplishment. At 35, James isn’t just a part of the Lakers surge to the Finals—he’s the driving force. His field goal percentage (54.7%) is the third highest of his playoff career. He’s averaging the second most assists (8.9) while cracking double-figures in rebounding (10.3) for just the second time. And he’s doing it in by far the fewest minutes per game (35) he’s played in a postseason. L.A., meanwhile, didn’t just best a difficult conference playoff field—they battered it, losing just three games along the way. If James and Co. do the same to Miami, this will be his crowning achievement.
The Lakers were 2-0 against the Heat in the regular season—does that matter?
Not really. The Heat are a different team, both in rotation (Tyler Herro has supplanted Kendrick Nunn.) and roster, with Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder—two players who will provide the bulk of the defense on James—acquired after both meetings. Still, it’s worth noting the Heat have had no answers for Anthony Davis, who averaged nearly 30-points in the two meetings, shooting 60% from the floor. His counterpart, Bam Adebayo, has struggled averaging 11.5 points—the second fewest against any team in the league this season. Entering his first Finals, Davis is peaking, posting 28.8 points in the conference playoffs on a blistering 57.1% shooting. Adebayo, who was brilliant for the Heat against Boston, needs to be up for the challenge.
Who has the coaching edge?
Frank Vogel deserves enormous credit for steering the Lakers into the Finals but this postseason has served as a reminder that Erik Spoelstra—in his 12 season as Miami’s head coach, the only organization he has ever worked for—is among the elite. Spoelstra will have to get creative in this series, too. The Heat coach has had a brilliant postseason, creating walls in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo, zoning a prolific Boston offense right out of the playoffs. He will have to be equally as creative against the Lakers. How many minutes does Adebayo, Miami’s top defender, get against Davis early? How much of the Heat’s heralded zone gets thrown at L.A.’s shooters? Vogel’s approach is effective, but simpler, relying on bruising physicality, timely shooting and riding the talents of two of the top five players in the NBA. Spoelstra will need to dig deep into his bag for Miami to have a shot.
Number to watch
There’s a common thread in the Lakers three losses: Three-point shooting. In Game 1 against Portland, the Lakers shot 15.6%. In Game 1 against Houston, it was 28.9%. In a Game 3 defeat to Denver, 23.1%. Contrast that against close out wins for L.A. against the Blazers (38.9%), Rockets (51.4%) and Nuggets (37.5%), and you can see the difference. Rajon Rondo, not typically known as a three-point shooter, is connecting on a career high 44.8% of his threes this postseason. The Lakers other three-point shooters (Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, Alex Caruso) scuffled some in the conference finals, and Miami will need that to continue to have any chance of slowing this L.A. offense.
The (other) number to watch
Miami hasn’t just been good in the fourth quarters this postseason—the Heat have been great. Miami is a plus-68 in the final quarter, a historically strong number. Against the Lakers, the Heat will face one of the best fourth quarter performers in NBA history.. James hasn’t been overwhelming in the fourth this postseason, though his 16 points in in Game 5 against Denver is a big reason why the Nuggets will watch from home. James has the ability to control the fourth with his passing, with pace and his ability to get to the rim almost at will. Miami blasted out Giannis and survived a few Jayson Tatum surges, but LeBron is a completely different challenge. Can the Heat continue to own the final 12 minutes?
Will Dwight Howard have a significant role in this series?
Unclear. Howard is fresh off an excellent conference finals spent harassing Nikola Jokic (and referees) relentlessly, while chipping in a double-double in a critical Game 4. If Miami elects to plus-up its lineup with Meyers Leonard—certainly possible if the Heat want to avoid playing Adebayo on Anthony Davis for extended stretches—Howard could draw minutes on Adebayo. Just like against Denver, Howard would not need to post big numbers, just make Adebayo work on the defensive glass while forcing him into tough shots on the offensive end. Howard can make an impact of his own offensively by looking for holes in Miami’s favored zone defense. Howard’s redemption arc has been one of the more compelling stories this postseason—we sometimes forget just how close the likely future Hall of Famer was to being out of the NBA last summer—and that arc can continue in Howard’s first Finals appearance in more than a decade.
How will Miami’s young duo handle the moment?
A year ago, Herro, a mid first round pick, was reporting to Heat training camp with limited expectations. Two years ago, Duncan Robinson was an undrafted free agent attempting to make the Miami roster. Today Robinson has emerged as one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters, while Herro has leapfrogged fellow rookie Nunn in Miami’s rotation and submitted huge performances this postseason. The bubble environment should help both adjust to the pressure of playing in a first Finals; there will be no jam packed media sessions, no pulsating atmosphere of the Staples Center, just the same quiet arena they have played in for the last two months. Both Robinson (40%) and Herro (37.8%) were efficient three-point shooters in the conference playoffs. They will need to be again for the Heat to succeed in the Finals.