Two months in the bubble has paved the way for what should be a fascinating finals, one that provides far more than just narrative intrigue. The Heat are rolling after bullying Boston, and Miami is a far friskier underdog than one might think. Erik Spoelstra is perhaps the game’s most innovative mind, and he leads a group that is deep, versatile and (perhaps most importantly) tough as hell. The Heat aren’t backing down from the challenge ahead, even as an uphill climb awaits. A Lakers title is no guarantee.
So just exactly what will decide the Finals as LeBron James seeks a championship with his third franchise? Let’s sift through some burning questions ahead of Game 1.
Which Rajon Rondo Will Show Up?
There’s been no shortage of criticism lobbed Rondo’s way in recent years, and frankly, much of it has been earned. The former Celtics point guard wasn’t exactly effective in his first season with the Lakers in 2018–19, and he sported the worst defensive rating of any Lakers rotation player this season. Rondo's creaky jumper stalled the Lakers offense, especially when paired with Anthony Davis and another big man. It was assumed that Rondo’s time as an impact player had passed. He’s quickly disproven that notion in the 2020 playoffs.
Rondo showed flashes of his Boston form during the last two rounds, and he frankly buried the Rockets in a Game 3 win in the Western Conference semifinals. Rondo has hit 45% of his three-point attempts in the playoffs. He’s generating turnovers at an impressive rate. Perhaps most importantly, he’s serving as a necessary lead ball-handler when LeBron James sits. The Lakers bench units without James haven’t exactly set the world on fire, but they’ve treaded water effectively. Armed with two true superstars, breaking even in non-LeBron minutes is a relative win. Rondo has delivered in those situations, and when he shares the floor with James, the Lakers have largely thrived.
A tougher challenge awaits in the finals. Goran Dragic is one of the league’s savviest veteran guards, and Miami will roll out plenty of length off the bench with Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala. This Heat team is deep and filled with quality ballhandlers. They made a major difference against Boston, and the same could follow against Los Angeles. If Rondo struggles, a seven-game series could await.
Will Tyler Herro Stay Hot?
Miami’s rookie guard has been one of the surprise standouts in the playoffs, appearing far more comfortable in the bubble than he did in the regular season. Herro averaged 19.2 points per game in the Eastern Conference finals, and his 37-point eruption in Game 4 marked his arrival as a future star. Jimmy Butler is Miami’s leader. Bam Adebayo is their engine. Herro’s recent heroics have taken the Heat offense to a whole new level.
Will Herro be able to replicate his success against the Lakers? He's got a tough battle ahead. Los Angeles is downright gargantuan compared to the Celtics, with Davis leading a defense rife with lanky wings and centers. The Lakers allowed the second-fewest open threes in the NBA in the regular season. Both Herro and Duncan Robinson could have a tough time getting off quality looks if the Lakers are locked in defensively. Herro hasn’t seemed to care about the location, round or opponent thus far in his first playoffs. He’ll need to continue that mentality to pull off a finals upset.
Battle of the (Double) Bigs
There’s largely been a singular question looming over the Lakers in 2019–20: will Davis finally commit to playing center? We haven’t received a clear answer thus far. Los Angeles rode its double-big lineup in the regular season—largely in an attempt to limit the toll on Davis—then waffled back and forth in the postseason. The matchup with Houston necessitated Davis leading small-ball units. The Lakers then went big again against Denver, stifling Nikola Jokic as Dwight Howard returned to prominence. How will Frank Vogel manage his rotation in the finals? The decision is hard to parse.
Miami doesn’t sport a true 7' 0" behemoth like Jokic, and it remains a question just how many minutes Spoelstra can play Kelly Olynyk. That leaves Adebayo as the Heat’s primary big, largely forcing Spoelstra to play a single big alongside four guards and wings. That’s not necessarily a major issue for Miami—Houston had success going small early—but it does leave an enticing option for Vogel. He could opt to stick with two centers in an attempt to pound the paint and crash the boards, though that could stifle Los Angeles’s offense if Miami relies on its zone. The battle of the bigs is the most interesting schematic subplot of the series.
Miami doesn’t need Butler to be a 30-point-per-game scorer to win the finals, especially as Herro grows into a future All-Star. But it’s hard to see Miami really staying afloat if Butler is as quiet as he was against Boston. Butler averaged just 19 points in six games against the Celtics, and he didn’t make a single three in nine attempts in Miami’s last five games. We’re not asking Butler to be Stephen Curry. The Heat's leading man has never really been a sterling three-point shooter, and he generates plenty of points near the rim and at the foul line. But even a couple of threes can make a big difference, especially if the whistle isn’t going Butler’s way. Miami has plenty of outside threats, but Butler will need to garner at least a modicum of respect near the arc against the Lakers.
Can the Heat Slow LeBron?
To be frank, none of the four questions above will matter if James goes nuclear on his former team. James was a one-man wrecking crew in the 2015 and 2016 finals, and he delivered perhaps his playoff masterpiece in Game 1 against Golden State in 2018. Does James have enough in the tank to run roughshod over the Heat? Recent evidence suggests as such. James is shooting a healthy 55% from the field in these playoffs, and he decimated the Nuggets with a 38-point triple double in Game 5. Denver’s defense is tissue paper compared to Miami. But the opponent could be immaterial.
Spoelstra will have plenty of wrinkles in store for James. Miami’s zone will likely be employed early and often, and the Heat will welcome triples from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and the rest of Los Angeles’s supporting cast. Stopping James's penetration should be priority No. 1. Crowder and Iguodala will receive plenty of time on James. Butler could be the primary defender late. Perhaps a box-and-one or other gimmick could be employed in spurts. James vs. the Heat isn’t just an exciting narrative. It’s a fascinating tactical battle, one that could very well go seven games.