Tramel: NBA Finals are fascinating, but all roads lead to LeBron
The Lakers-Heat NBA Finals is a fascinating matchup that goes beyond LeBron vs. Jimmy Butler and Anthony Davis vs. Bam Adebayo.
This is LeBron vs. “Taking my talents to South Beach.” Pat Riley vs. the Lakers. Talent vs. might. Old vs. young. Zone vs. man-to-man. Superstar assembling vs. team building. David vs. Goliath.
It all makes for a fabulous Finals, which begins Wednesday night.
Here are the matchups:
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* David vs. Goliath. Miami is just the fourth fifth seed (or lower) to make the NBA Finals. The other three -- 1981 Rockets, 1995 Rockets, 1999 Knickerbockers -- also played a No. 1 seed in the Finals. And the ‘95 Rockets won, sweeping the young Orlando Magic.
But is the Heat a massive underdog? Most years, yes. The Lakers were 52-19 in the regular season, a winning percentage of .732 that equates to a 60-win season over 82 games. The Heat was 44-29, a .603 winning percentage that equates to a 49-win season over 82 games.
An 11-game difference in wins is huge. In the last 20 years, since those ‘99 Knicks, only three times have the Finalists had a win-discrepancy greater than 11. All three were the Golden State-Cleveland series, 2015-17. Fourteen in 2015, 16 in both 2016 and 2017.
But this season feels different. For one thing, no homecourt advantage, courtesy of the Orlando bubble. This series doesn’t open in LakerLand. It opens in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. For another, the 4½-month break for the pandemic was a virtual restart, and during the restart, Miami has been every bit as potent as the Lakers or anyone else.
Both teams are 13-2 in the playoffs, and the Heat played a tougher postseason road, beating the fourth-seeded Pacers, top-seed Bucks and third-seeded Raptors. The Lakers beat the eighth-seeded TrailBlazers, the fourth-seeded Rockets and the third-seeded Nuggets.
Miami is not your typical David.
* Superstar assembling vs. team building: The Heat built a team the old-fashioned way, with excellent drafting and some fortuitous trades. Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn came via the draft or rookie free agency, none with high picks. Butler came via a trade that cost Miami a first-round draft pick, Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside. Goran Dragic, Jae Crowder and Andre Igoudala came via trades that excited few from Miami’s side.
Meanwhile, the Lakers followed the recent trend of superstar mingling, putting LeBron (via free agency) and Anthony Davis (via forced trade) together. It’s what the Clippers, Rockets, Heat and others have tried.
Toronto upset the system last season by beating Golden State in the Finals. A Miami championship could turn the league even moreso in the direction of team-building.
The Warriors, of course, were so dominant because they combined both methods -- they methodically built a championship team, then added Kevin Durant.
* Zone vs. man-to-man: Few teams even nominally play zone defense in the NBA. Even fewer stick with it for extended stretches.
But Miami, after playing virtually no zone against Indiana or Milwaukee, deployed a zone defense that often stymied the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. And a zone seems perfect strategy against the Lakers, who are dominant inside but can struggle with outside shooting.
The Lakers play excellent defense themselves, but LA uses the traditional man-to-man. Success with a zone by Miami would cause a bunch of teams to more closely examine such a defense in the future.
* Old vs. young: Miami has a nice mix of youth and veterans. While the Heat plays Butler (31), Dragic (34), Crowder (30) and Igoudala (36), it also plays Adebayo (23), Herro (20) and Robinson (26).
Meanwhile, the Lakers play LeBron (35), Dwight Howard (34), Rajon Rondo (34), Danny Green (33), JaVale McGee (32) and Markieff Morris (31). Standing by are Jared Dudley (35) and J.R. Smith (35). The Lakers’ young players are not that young -- Anthony Davis (27), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (27), Alex Caruso (26), Kyle Kuzma (25).
Win or lose, it might be even more difficult for the Lakers to win in 2021.
* Talent vs. might: the Lakers are huge. They’re as big as the old Celtics, who had Larry Bird playing small forward, with a backcourt of Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge. Bird might be a center in the modern NBA.
LA starts an old-fashioned center, either Howard or McGee, with Davis, a 6-foot-10 monster, at power forward, with LeBron at small forward. There is nothing small about LeBron.
The Lakers attack the basket not with deft ballhandling, but with brute strength. They play bully ball. They have to play bully ball. The Lakers are in the bottom third of the league in 3-point attempts and 3-point accuracy.
This season, only Caldwell-Pope shot above average from deep (he made 38.5 percent of his 3-point attempts). Green shot a solid 36.7 percent from deep. All the other Laker rotational players were below 35 percent; some well below.
Meanwhile, Miami was second in the NBA in 3-point accuracy, 37.9 percent. Dragic shot 36.7 percent and ranks only fifth among Heat rotational players -- Robinson made 44.6 percent, Crowder 44.5 (in 20 games, since the trade), Kelly Olynyk 40.6 and Herro 38.9.
The Heat is too good defensively to want to turn this series into we’ll-take-3’s-to-your-2’s battle. But if that happens, Miami is ready.
* LeBron ghosts vs. Pat Riley ghosts: It seems like forever since LeBron was in Miami. It was only six years ago. So how long does it seem like since Riley coached the Lakers?
Riley became the LA coach in November 1981 and created the Showtime Lakers, coaching the NBA’s most famous franchise through 1990, winning four championships and reaching three other NBA Finals.
Riley went to the Knicks and, in 1995, became president of the Heat. For 25 years he’s built a model franchise, winning a title before LeBron’s arrival, winning two titles with LeBron and now has the Heat on the verge of another.
Riley’s career is remarkable in length and versatility. Great coach with the Lakers, great executive with the Heat. He also had the Knicks winning big.
LeBron’s 2014 departure angered Riley, but they’ve since reconciled. This is such a great matchup that Riley could take a backseat, but it shouldn’t. He and LeBron are landmark figures in NBA history, and meeting in a 2020 Finals is rich in intrigue.
* So who wins? The Heat is uniquely constructed to match up with the Laker superstars. Butler, vs. LeBron, and Adebayo, vs. Davis, are defensive superstars, which are rare.
Alas, the way the game is played, it’s tough to keep those matchups. The Heat could choose to not switch; just go under screens, let the Lakers shoot from deep and take their chances.
Or Miami could play zone and try to befuddle the Lakers. It worked against a deep and talented Celtics team.
Davis is a fabulous talent but is largely unproven in the postseason. He’s been good in these playoffs, but his stock has not risen like Adebayo’s has risen.
LeBron is proven in the postseason. He’s the NBA’s greatest playoff player since Bill Russell, and Russell never had to navigate playoff mine fields as deep as what LeBron has faced.
If LeBron leads the Lakers to a championship, it would be his fourth title and his third franchise to carry to the crown.
I love the Miami story. But LeBron, even at age 35, is too good. Lakers in six.