We’ve finally made it. After quite literally the longest season in NBA history (probably?), we’re down to the final two teams competing for all the marbles. The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Denver Nuggets in a 5-game series that was more competitive than the final tally would suggest, while the Miami Heat once again used wildly impressive clutch play to take down the favored Boston Celtics in 6 games.
Who has the better starting lineup?
MO: I really don’t even know how to answer this question. The Lakers have the two best players in this series. LeBron James is still the single best player in the world, as evidenced by the monstrous closeout performance against Denver (38/16/10). Anthony Davis has cemented himself as a top-5 player this postseason as well. He is maybe one of the best #2’s in league history. Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler are fantastic, but let’s be honest, these Lakers superstars are on a different level.
After LeBron and AD, The Heat probably have at least the five next best players in the series, which is what makes this so tough to decide. With that being said — and I’ll touch on this more later — some of Miami’s “other guys” might be less effective/playable in this series than they have in the past few series.
With that being said, I do think the Lakers role players have been fine this postseason. They’re mostly just asked to defend and hit open threes at a reliable rate. When the role guys do both of those things, it generally leads to a Lakers blow out. When they do just one, things get a little more hairy.
Ultimately, I like the quality over quantity approach here. LeBron and AD were great in the regular season, but they’ve been something entirely different in the playoffs. At times, they’ve looked like the two best players in the world, and have done a magnificent job of elevating the play of their supporting cast. Picking the Lakers starting lineup over Miami’s comes down to trusting LeBron and Davis to continue to perform at supernova levels, and they’ve given me no reason to doubt them.
I’m guessing you might have a different view, Jack?
JB: Not too much different, actually! In terms of the depth of their starting lineup, Miami has the advantage with their third, fourth, and fifth-best guys. I’ll take Dragic, Robinson, and Crowder over Green, KCP, and Howard/McGee; but LeBron is the greatest player to ever play the game and Anthony Davis is playing like the most dominant big we have seen since MVP-candidate Dwight Howard in his Magic days. That duo is too good to not win the starters-vs-starters minutes, especially considering LeBron’s experience in the Finals.
Throughout the playoffs, Miami’s starting unit has been terrific in a two key areas: offensive turnover rate (85th percentile) and opponent offensive rebound rate (80th percentile), per Cleaning the Glass. If this five can continue to limit turnovers and keep AD and Dwight off the glass, I love the Heat’s chances to prevent the Lakers from getting out in transition for easy buckets and going on first quarters runs, like we saw against the Nuggets (RIP). For a team with as little deep postseason experience as Miami has (on the floor, at least), staying disciplined and forcing LA to make jump shots will go a long way in establishing a rhythm early on that they will need to ride the rest of the game if they hope to beat LeBron and the Lakers.
A side note here, but keep in mind that both teams close adjust their closing lineups based on feel throughout the game. The Lakers have closed with Rondo and Caruso over KCP and Green multiple times, and the Heat have closed with Olynyk over Crowder at times, as well as Herro over Robinson, or Robinson over Dragic. That will be a fun wrinkle to monitor tonight and throughout the series.
JB: Miami’s bench was exactly why I picked them to beat the Bucks before the playoffs began. Head Coach Erik Spoelstra can throw a variety of different lineups out there to match anything the Lakers throw at them. A huge reason for this is that Miami has group of extremely solid team defenders in Tyler Herro, Andre Iguodala, and Kelly Olynyk, who are all comfortable operating in man-to-man defense or zone defense, which you can expect Spo to deploy frequently against two dominant paint players in James and Davis.
The combination of Herro and Olynyk as guys who can spark the second unit individually with three-point shooting and finishing around the rim has helped them tremendously throughout the playoffs. While they have rarely played together in the playoffs, I could see this happening if the Lakers go small with Kyle Kuzma at the 4 and AD at the 5. Miami can use Herro as a de facto 1 with Olynyk at the 5 and Iguodala at the 4. In 164 possessions with those three on the floor together in the postseason, the Heat are +8.0 points per 100 possessions, good for 89th percentile in the league. On defense, they give up just 97.5 points per 100 possessions, which is the 100th (yes, 100th) percentile. In other words, this is the best defensive bench trio in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. On offense, lineups with these three understandably struggle around the rim (4th percentile) but are excellent from beyond the arc (39.6 3PT%, good for the 86th percentile).
Overall, the edge is absolutely with Miami. The Heat will have no issue guarding Kyle Kuzma and will want to make Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo beat them from the 3-point line. Rondo, a 32.8 percent 3-point shooter in the regular season, is shooting 44.8 percent from 3 on 2.8 attempts per game, so I would bet Miami plays the numbers and expects some regression to the mean here. Meanwhile, Carushow is shooting just 24.4 percent from 3 on three attempts per game; he is much more dangerous on the drive and as a slasher than as a shooter, so Miami will sag off him and force him to shoot. If LA’s bench does not shoot the 3 well, the Heat reserves should have no trouble outpacing those of the Lakers.
MO: Yeah, this is by far the biggest gap in the series. It’s no secret that Miami is the deeper team. The Lakers bench is different most nights depending on who Frank Vogel starts at center, but the three mainstays are Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo, and Markieff Morris. We could also see Dwight Howard coming off the bench at some point in this series if Vogel decides to commit to Anthony Davis as the starting center. Those guys have all had their moments, but it doesn’t hold up against the likes of Andre Igoudala and Tyler Herro.
With that being said, I do think the degree to which this admittedly sizeable gap in talent will swing the series in Miami’s favor is a bit overblown. This is the NBA Finals. If the Lakers need their starters to mostly play 40+ minutes, they’re going to do that, and I’d be shocked if there were more than a few minutes without at least one of LeBron or Anthony Davis on the floor for the Lakers. If Miami is fortunate to get any minutes with both Lakers superstars on the bench, that’s when they have to win the game. In a fairly even matchup like the one we have, games are often decided in short 3-4 minute spurts by either team.
The most interesting thing for the Lakers, to me, is how Rondo fares in this series. Is he a difference maker against the zone, continuing to make jump shots and carving it up with his passing? Or does he revert back to the borderline player he was for most of the regular season? That’s an X-Factor for me.
MO: This round goes to the Heat as well. I think you could make a pretty strong argument for Erik Spoelstra as the best coach in the NBA. I certainly won’t argue against that, at least. The way he deploys his players is top-notch, and the zone has been an incredible wrinkle they’ve unleashed this postseason. He’s been one of the best in the business for a really long time, dating back to LeBron’s time with the Heat. Hey Jack, did you know LeBron used to play for the Heat? I haven’t seen that storyline anywhere (heavy sarcasm font).
With that being said, I don’t want to diminish what Frank Vogel has done. He’s pushed all of the right buttons with the role players this postseason. He trusted Rondo when every Twitter Head Coach was calling for Rondo to basically just be an Assistant Coach. He also continues to properly adjust on the fly with the center position, starting Dwight Howard, Javale McGee, and Anthony Davis in that spot depending on the matchup. The bottom line is these are two really good coaches.
Given everything we went through above, what do you expect the Heat to look to exploit, Jack?
JB: Mike, this is the first I’m hearing of The King using his talents in South Beach with the Miami Heat! I’m sure it was a high-stakes decision to move down there.
If there is anyone who will know how to gameplan against LeBron James, it’s Erik Spoelstra. Like you said Mike, I believe Spo is the best coach in the NBA. The way he is able to prepare his players and make sure they are comfortable with throwing a ton of different looks at opponents is admirable.
I expect the Heat to turn some of the Lakers’ aggression against them. LeBron James-led teams have always featured a healthy dose of inverted ball screens (guards screening for bigs) and I expect Frank Vogel to keep doing it until someone proves they can stop it. LeBron can attack Dragic, Herro, and Robinson all day long on switches, but the Heat are too smart off the ball to allow LeBron to get all the way to the rim consistently. Between showing on cuts and refills, digging on rollers, and helping the helper, the Heat did a fantastic job building a wall to stop Giannis and I believe they will be able to have a similar impact on LeBron. However, LeBron is arguably the greatest passer of all-time, whereas with Giannis, it is an area in which he really struggles.
Spo will also want Anthony Davis to post-up smaller mismatches. So, Jack, if AD is posting up on nearly 20 percent of his possessions on the floor and scoring on 52.1 percent of them in the playoffs, why on Earth would Spo want AD to post-up? Because the Heat are particularly adept at defending cutters, especially when great off-ball defenders Bam Adebayo and Andre Iguodala are on the floor together. The Heat communicate extremely well on defense and it will certainly come in handy against a post-playmaker of AD’s caliber.
Per Synergy, the Lakers are scoring 1.296 points per possessions when Anthony Davis passes out of a post-up (75th percentile), compared to just scoring 1.014 PPP when he posts up to score. Between Jae Crowder, Bam, Iggy, and Olynyk, the Heat can throw a bunch of different lengthy defenders at AD that will make it significantly more difficult for him to get clean shot attempts and make easy passes. The more stagnant the Lakers offense, the easier they will be to defend, and Davis posting up is the best way for the Heat to force a dynamic offense into late-in-the-clock shot attempts that are easier for Miami to close-out to. The Lakers are shooting 41 percent in the playoffs on unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts in the playoffs, but that number drops to 29 percent on guarded jumpers. Miami closes out to shooters well and I expect that to continue against the Lakers.
Biggest Advantage for the Heat
JB: Erik Spoelstra.
If you are on the floor and have any sort of weakness, Spo is going to find it and exploit it until he is forced to find a new player/weakness to pick on. He is a master class tactician that always puts his players in the best position to succeed. There is no doubt that he has the attention, respect, and unwavering trust of every Heat player, which puts any and every type of in-game adjustment on the table for Miami and makes a huge difference come playoff (or in this case Finals) time. This type of on-court flexibility and systemic buy-in enables the Heat throw all sorts of junk at the Lakers on defense, while also weaponizing every man in the rotation on offense.
LA has yet to see a perimeter trio as versatile in terms of offensive scheme as Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson. Expect Spo to use them in hand-offs, high normal PnR and Spain PnR, double drag, and flex actions to put pressure on Lakers defenders all over the floor. Robinson is especially a player to watch because of his three-point gravity. Both Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope struggle to recover on players who get by them either on the drive or via a cut. With this in mind, Spo can put Robinson and Herro in the corners and attack them with flex cuts or wide pindowns to curl off of. Herro is much more adept finishing around the rim, but Robinson’s three-point frequency could make him a back-door threat throughout the series, especially if Bam can pull Dwight or JaVale McGee away from the rim.
When things start to go south for the Heat, they never panic, and that is because of the demeanor of Erik Spoelstra and the example he sets for his on-court two leaders in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. No matter the score or time, Spo and his in-game adjustments will always keep Miami in the game. The Heat are 9-2 in clutch-time games in the playoffs, and have easily the best winning percentage (81.8) in these games. Sure, Jimmy Butler is a good closer at the end of games, but the Spo is the real reason why this team is so damn successful in big moments at the end of games. The contrast between these two teams’ performances in the clutch is striking.
Averages in the clutch during the playoffs:— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) September 30, 2020
• 9-2 record in games w/ clutch minutes
• 50.7% FG
• 36.1% 3PT
• 88.2% FT
• 1.0 TO
• 5-2 record
• 33.3% FG
• 28.6% 3PT
• 62.5% FT
• 0.7 TO
Coaching matters. It could very well decide the series.
Whether or not these trends continue is yet to be seen, but the Erik Spoelstra is the Heat’s most trusted asset and it will be on full display in the NBA Finals.
MO: The Lakers biggest advantage is that they have the two best players in the series. The old school of thought has been that the team with the best player in each series will win. What about when you have the two best players? Maybe I’m exaggerating the gap between LeBron/AD and Jimmy/Bam, but I view the Heat stars to be a couple tiers below the Lakers.
If you’re the Lakers, you keep doing what you’ve been doing by running everything through LeBron and AD. I think there’s something to the idea that the Lakers might struggle to defend the Heat’s shooters, but the flip side is that LeBron is just going to put Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Goran Dragic, etc. into PnR repeatedly. At some point, Miami will probably have to choose between taking Robinson off the floor, or going to zone almost permanently. It’s not the exact same by any means, but Denver’s offense full of hand-offs and cuts was a pretty good warm-up for the Lakers defense.
Additionally, any time Bam isn’t guarding AD, he needs the ball. I don’t care who else is on the floor, Anthony Davis needs a touch every time he is guarded by anyone other than Bam Adebayo.
Speaking of the zone, I wouldn’t expect the Lakers to be super successful attacking that in the half-court, so they’ll need to exploit the same opportunities that they have all year long to score efficiently: getting out in transition at every chance they get, and hammering the offensive glass. LeBron is still a terror in transition, and the Lakers best chances to score against the zone might be off of offensive rebounds where they can overwhelm Miami with their size.
MO: I get the idea that LA will struggle to chase the likes of Duncan Robinson around screens, but I actually trust LA’s secondary pieces more so chasing around screens than I do guarding the ball. Specifically, I think Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, and Kuzma are at their best defensively chasing shooters. There will surely be some issues, and I’d expect there’s at least one game where Robinson really gets it going, but I think the Lakers feel okay about their chances with those guys chasing and trusting their rotations, which have been unbelievable all year long. It’s a lot harder to kill a team with off-ball actions when LeBron or Anthony Davis are able to play centerfield.
The Lakers have made it this far by being phenomenal defensively. I don’t expect that to change. They’ve done a phenomenal job of taking teams out of what they want to do, and having the luxury of putting LeBron on Jimmy Butler in the fourth quarter of these games is still one of the most terrifying things in the league. LeBron, AD, and Dwight Howard have made a habit of blowing up your main actions all postseason long.
I think it’s going to be a rockfight that’s ultimately decided by more simple offensive creation, and that’s where my biggest concern would be if I’m a Heat fan. When LeBron is on Jimmy late in the 4th, are they still going to be able to create the same type of offense they normally do? Can Bam be the focal point of this offensive with AD draped all over him?
On the other side of the ball, it really comes down to how the Lakers handle the Miami zone. Specifically, this series might be decided by whether or not LeBron is making jump shots. According to Second Spectrum, the Lakers have seen the 6th-most zone of any team in the NBA and have the best FG% against zone (50%), but this Miami zone is a different beast with all of the length they put at the top of it. I’d imagine inverting your guards and forwards the way Spo has done will become more popular moving forward. Spoelstra will no doubt do everything in his power to wall off the paint the same way he did against Giannis Antetokounmpo, but this is a different animal.
LeBron leads the playoffs in buckets in the restricted area (87) on the 2nd-best percentage (75.7%).— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) September 29, 2020
Anthony Davis leads the playoffs in percentage in the restricted area (78.8%) with the 3rd-most buckets (63).
Simply monstrous at the rim. pic.twitter.com/BF6YnoXElb
Ultimately, I just can’t pick against LeBron James in the NBA Finals. He knows what this would mean for his legacy. He can taste it. It’s there for the taking, and this isn’t someone who misses an opportunity like this. It’s been years since he’s been favored in a Finals series. I’m not saying LeBron can replicate his Game 5 performance against Denver every night, but I’d be lying if I said that isn’t what I somewhat expect the norm to be in the Finals.
LeBron makes himself feel desperate when there’s no reason for desperation, but you better believe he desperately wants that 4th ring. I think the two teams split the first four games, with the Lakers then winning a pivotal game five, followed by a classic, supernova LeBron performance in the deciding game 6.
The King gets his 4th ring, and the GOAT talk gets even louder.
JB: Back in July, I placed a future on the Miami Heat to win the East at +900. I have sung their praises for weeks and continually begged for people to believe in them because they have simply been better coached and more disciplined than any team they have faced in the playoffs thus far. That will remain true in the NBA Finals, despite the youth and relative inexperience of key pieces such as Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson, and mountainous challenge of facing a LeBron James-led team with a Larry O’Brien Trophy in site.
Miami is also very well equipped to neutralize sets the Lakers love to run, such as inverted ball screens, mid-range and low post-ups, wide and corner pindown screens, and horns actions that test the defense at all three levels. In addition to that, like Mike mentioned, the Heat can play multiple zone formations effectively, whether it be a 3-2, 2-3, or 1-2-2 zone, because of the length they can put at the top to make initiating offense more difficult for playmakers and trapping easier for defenders. Spoelstra is incredibly creative on that end of the floor and will undoubtedly have the best gameplan to slow down LeBron James because of his intense familiarity with The King and his skillset.
On the offensive end of the floor, the Heat have more capable shooters that they can design set pieces for, such as Dragic, Robinson, Herro, Crowder, or Olynyk, and a more versatile bench that will allow them to more easily mix and match lineups in case foul trouble becomes a factor for them. It will all come down to which team can more effectively weaponize their role players and the 3-point shot, both of which the Miami Heat are extremely good at. Lastly, the Heat are not scared one bit of LeBron James or Anthony Davis. Both Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder have playoff experience guarding and disrupting LeBron and I see no reason why they will not make life harder for him than anyone on the Nuggets could in the Western Conference Finals. Simply put, there is no team better positioned to complete a massive underdog run and knock off the biggest underdog #1 seed in the history of sports in the LA Lakers.
Mike, I think the people sense a “but” coming. I think it’s time to give the people not what they want (a spicy Heat upset pick), but rather what they need to hear: the truth. The Heat are tough as nails and I fully anticipate this series going at least six games because of the competitive spirit of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and this Miami team, and how well-prepared and jacked up they will be to potentially seize a momentous opportunity to steal a title from the Los Angeles Lakers.
But... the Lakers have the greatest player to ever go to war in between the lines on the hardwood. In his 17th season, LeBron still runs the NBA and he will run the NBA for truly as long as he wants to. The LeBron/AD duo has evolved into one of the greatest 1-2 punches the league has ever seen because teams struggle so much just to defend their physicality and imposing presence, let alone scheme up ways to take away their biggest skills as players. Both are incredibly skilled and it is virtually impossible to take away one without enabling the other to gash the defense inside and out.
Perhaps most importantly, LeBron has never been hungrier for an NBA title. Mike mentioned that he absolutely understands his legacy at stake and that is true. The King made Michael Jordan feel so insecure about his place in history that this dude made a 10-part documentary special about his career with the Bulls to try and win fans back over. You think LeBron forgot about that? Hell no. A fourth ring, and a fourth Finals MVP, in this environment, given everything that is on the line, would make the GOAT argument for LeBron that much stronger. With a championship this year, LeBron gets added to the long list of Laker legends: Wilt. Baylor. West. Kareem. Magic. Worthy. Shaq. Kobe. LeBron.
With the fate of his entire legacy on the line, and Anthony Davis by his side, there is absolutely no chance on God’s Green Earth that I am picking against LeBron “King” James Sr. Lakers in 7.