The Lakers played the Heat twice this season, but can we really consider it this season?
Their first matchup, in Los Angeles, happened in November. Their second, in Miami, happened in December.
The year was 2019. You might notice, around the globe, quite a bit has changed since.
The Miami Heat roster has been flipped on its head.
The younger side of Miami’s core has emerged. Bam Adebayo wasn’t yet an All-Star then. He might be a top-15 player now. Tyler Herro has gone from unreliable rookie to feared scorer with 25-point detonation potential.
Duncan Robinson, a floor-spacer deluxe, is in the starting lineup. Meyers Leonard, who started both games, probably won’t see a second this entire series. Jae Crowder was in Memphis. Andre Iguodala was on extended vacation. Now the wise veterans combine for 50 minutes on the wing. So much about the Heat is improved.
The Lakers on the other hand have remained the same for the most part. Which might be just fine for them. Los Angeles beat the Heat in both games as Lebron James and Anthony Davis were already a coherent two-headed offensive monster and defensive juggernaut cruising to the top seed out West.
The changes to the team are minor, but impactful. Avery Bradley opted out so there goes the Lakers best perimeter defender, and best option to slow down Tyler Herro.
Markieff Morris was a late addition to the Lakers, but has become a vital rotation player that spaces the floor while playing solid defense.
But what makes the Lakers great is their dynamic duo so no major changes there. What the Heat got back in December is what they’ll get in heavy doses throughout the Finals.
With all that said, not many people expected this Finals matchup.
The Heat were the fifth seed in the league’s softer conference. They lost seven of nine games during a February stretch. Adebayo was late to the bubble. They were 3-5 in the seeding games. But then something clicked.
Miami’s players, mentally, appear built for this bubble environment, where the less motivated melt away. And that is attributed to the Heat culture, created by Pat Riley, passed down through the voice of Erik Spoelstra, and lived through Jimmy Butler.
But the Heat won’t have the “motivation” advantage over their opponent for the first time this playoffs.
The Lakers are playing in honor of Kobe Bryant, for LeBron and AD’s legacy, and so much more.
Matchups make fights so let’s dive into this.
Lakers Biggest Question: Can they attack the Heat’s 2-3 Zone?
Miami played a 2-3 zone defense on the Celtics for 177 possessions in the Eastern Conference finals, holding them to 171 points. The strategy won Miami a crucial Game 2 and kept Boston uncomfortable throughout the series.
The Celtics made 36.4 percent of their 3-pointers this season. That ranked 13th. The Lakers, at 34.9 percent, ranked 21st. On the surface, that makes them an even more appealing target than the Celtics to play zone against.
The best way to kill a paint-packed zone is to rain open 3s over the top of it. On any given night, if Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso are hot, the Lakers could shoot Miami out of it. But the numbers never lie and they say that isn’t likely, not this year.
Spoelstra knows the numbers. He’s smart enough to play the percentages and live or die with any players not named LeBron or Anthony Davis to beat them.
Spoelstra also knows that when the Lakers don’t get out in transition, they tend to slow the game down, become stagnant and rely on Davis or James to make a play with the clock shot about to expire. Many of those possessions end with forced Anthony Davis post-up or a late-clock contested LeBron James jumper without any other player movement.
A smart, selectively used zone defense should only exacerbate those stagnation issues. You know Miami is going to test it out. How often may depend on how much it bothers the Lakers, who will no doubt spend a chunk of their pre-series preparation discussing it.
In their first matchup way back last November, the Heat switched to a late first-quarter zone just after James went to the bench. It worked on the Lakers for a few possessions, but because zone defenses are vulnerable to offensive rebounds, the Lakers quickly got the Heat out of the zone.
Too often during that stretch, a Lakers miss resulted in Davis catching a rebound with he nearest defender being Goran Dragic. That cannot happen for the Heat.
With the Lakers having three 7 footers, 3 more guys standing 6’8″, crashing the boards and securing rebounds is the tactic to getting the Heat away from their effective zone.
The Lakers were the sixth-best offensive rebounding team in the NBA this season, grabbing 28.3 percent of their misses.
It’s such a crucial part of their tall-ball attack. Problems in the half court can be partially negated when you get a second chance on nearly one-third of your possessions.
The Heat were the third-best defensive rebounding team this season. So it’s strength against strength. But, again, Miami becomes more vulnerable on the glass when it rearranges into the 2-3 zone and get its box-out assignments all jumbled.
In that previously mentioned November matchup, the Heat played zone against the Lakers’ half-court offense on 32 possessions. The Lakers scored on 16 of them, producing 35 points. Not great but when you consider the final score was Lakers 95, Heat 80, it doesn’t seem so bad.
Fast forward a month to the second meeting and the Heat were more hesitant to use zone against the Lakers. The 2-3 was only deployed on eight possessions. But it worked great. The first six of those eight resulted in four turnovers, two missed 3s and zero Lakers points. The Heat rebounded both misses and converted two of those turnovers into immediate buckets on the other end.
Maybe it was because it was used sporadically and less, but the zone really did hinder the Lakers offense that night. It had the Lakers scrambling, much like you saw the Celtics look in the Conference Finals.
The six possessions against the zone in December is the Lakers’ offensive nightmare in these finals. he Lakers averaged 15.9 turnovers, third-most among the qualifying 16 playoff teams. They have a tendency to pass carelessly and a roster susceptible to horrific shooting nights from 3. If they combine both against an active Miami zone built to deflect passes, cause havoc and keep the ball out of the paint, you might see enough of stretches to put the Lakers in danger.
But … if the Lakers attack the offensive glass, cut sharply and pass well, they could bully and slice their way right through the 2-3 zone and force Spoelstra to adjust away from it. That’s exactly what the Lakers did in the November win.
It really will come down to the Lakers crashing the glass.
Miami’s Biggest Question: Is Bam Adebayo ready for Anthony Davis?
If you were to build a Davis defender in a lab, you might create Adebayo. He’s nearly as tall, nearly as strong, nearly as long and probably a bit more laterally quick, pairing those measurables (which Davis so rarely sees) with an elite defensive brain and instincts, plus the offensive ability to challenge Davis individually on the other end.
Over the course of a long series, I’m not sure there’s another player in the league right now you’d select over Adebayo to defend 50 Davis possessions per game.
Does that translate to success? Can Adebayo keep Davis inefficient enough to allow Miami’s other defenders not to over-help? Can he play Davis physical without getting in foul trouble, like Nikola Jokic regularly found himself in during the West finals?
Only time will tell, and we don’t have much footage of this matchup to go off of.
This is only Adebayo’s third season. They’ve faced each other in the NBA only six times and, in three of them, Adebayo was a bench player, just gaining his NBA footing.
Davis, when on the Pelicans, lit up a Miami interior defense that included Adebayo for 45 and 41 in separate games. This season, Davis put up an efficient 33 and 26 in the two matchups.
But since the last matchup, Adebayo has matured in every aspect of the game. So it will be interesting to see if Adebayo is ready for a series long clash with Davis.
Key Matchup: LeBron vs Butler, Crowder, and Iguodala
Houston’s best defensive option against James was P.J. Tucker. The problem: Tucker was also the Rockets’ best option against Davis and they needed him more there. For the Heat, like the Rockets, you could argue Adebayo is their best option against Davis and LeBron, but it makes more sense to have him mostly on Davis.
But unlike the Rockets, the Heat are loaded with capable defenders to put on LeBron.
Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala have all guarded LeBron in playoff series before. Crowder faced him while on the Celtics.
Iguodala has met him on the finals stage four previous times. Butler helped hold him to 40 percent shooting in a Bulls-Cavaliers series back in the day. James knows them. They know him. Spoelstra coached him. It’s LeBron’s toughest offensive test of the playoffs. It’s their toughest defensive test. It should be fascinating and maybe the key to the series.
You can never fully stop LeBron, just hope to contain him. Maybe more important at this stage of his career, make him expend energy on each possession. The Heat are equipped to do just that.
Side note, expect LeBron to hunt Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, and Goran Dragic in pick induced switches. Miami can’t let that happen.
X-Factor: Frank Vogel
For casual watchers you might want to skip this boring section. I get it how boring is it to have a Head Coach as the X-Factor. But in this case Frank Vogel’s coaching decisions will determine how this series plays out.
Series to series, game to game, half to half, you never know who Vogel will start at center. Against Portland, it was McGee, and it never made sense to adjust because the Blazers stayed big and never really made it a series.
Vogel got proactive against the smaller Rockets, moving to Morris in the starting lineup, sliding Davis to the center spot and blowing Houston away in its own ecosystem with a spread, mobile attack.
Denver required a bigger body to counter Jokic. Vogel initially tried McGee, but he’s been the worst of the Lakers’ centers. So Howard took his starting job and almost all his minutes. Entering the finals, he has the momentum as the most likely Game 1 starter.
But you never know with Vogel. He’s maintained extreme series-to-series and night-to-night flexibility. Miami starts Adebayo at center, Crowder at the four and Robinson, the sharpshooter, at small forward.
On paper you would look at Davis at center, next to Morris, as the most sensible lineup to defend the Heat’s spread attack. Crowder has made 42 playoff 3-pointers. Robinson has made 44 playoff 3s. They chuck with regularity and accuracy. Adebayo can shoot it a little, too, plus his playmaking ability has him out on the perimeter plenty.
That’s a tough defensive assignment for a Davis-McGee or a Davis-Howard front court. Davis-Morris or Davis-Kuzma is more mobile. You put Davis on Adebayo and either Morris or Kuzma on Crowder or Robinson.
But once again none of us can get inside the head of Vogel.
Maybe Vogel wants to see if the Lakers can survive defensively with two bigs, while punishing Miami with size on the other end. If so, Howard seems like the clear answer over McGee.
These are crucial decisions for Vogel to make this series. So far he has pushed the right button. For the Lakers to win their 17th title in franchise history, he will have to find the right combo once more.
Mini Matchup To Watch: Kyle Kuzma vs Tyler Herro
Heat rookie Tyler Herro has scored 247 points in the playoffs, all coming off the bench. That’s 79 more than any other reserve in these playoffs and 89 more than the closest Lakers reserve, Kuzma, who has 158 playoff points.
Kuzma hasn’t scored 20 in any of the 15 playoff games. Herro has scored double-digits in all 15 of Miami’s playoff games and eclipsed 20 three times, including a 37-point eruption in a crucial Game 4 win over the Celtics to put the Heat up 3-1.
Herro is providing that offensive punch off the bench for the Heat. As I look down the Lakers reserves, only Kuzma can match Herro’s scoring outbursts.
So keep an eye on the bench points for each team in each game. The Heat will likely win it each game, but the Lakers second unit needs to ensure the gap isn’t massive.
The last time the team with the two best players in the series lost the Finals was in 2004 when the Lakers with Shaq and Kobe lost to the Detroit Pistons.
This Heat team reminds be of those Pistons, but I can not find it in me to say the Heat will have the same success.
I’m electing to go with the two superstars, despite all of Miami’s qualities and advantages.
I know I am getting 60 plus points from LeBron and Davis. But I never know who is going to be the Heat’s top 2 scores on any given night. Some call that an advantage, I call is a red flag on the brightest stage.
Every game will be competitive and down to the finals minutes, but I am rolling with the Lakers star power over the Heat’s win by committee approach.
Lakers in 5