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Don't Sleep on the Heat

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

At long last, the NBA Finals are here, and I'm excited to be able to write about it. Like really excited. Sure, I expected the first ever Finals matchup between the Lakers and the Heat to feature Kobe Bryant against LeBron James, but this isn't 2011. Instead, we are living in a backwards world where LeBron is repping the Purple and Gold, and Kobe is working on his jumper in heaven. But, I digress. The NBA Finals is going to be an interesting one this year; Not only because LeBron is pitted against the team and coach he won two championships with, but also because ¹ no two teams that missed the playoffs in the previous year have ever met in the Finals. Many may see the Lakers as heavy favorites, but I'd pump the breaks on that theory. The Heat have a serious chance of winning this year, and frankly the Lakers should be very concerned. Hear me out.


As many sports purists would tell you, it doesn't matter who the more talented team is in the playoffs - it matters which team is hotter. Fittingly, that would be the Heat. Even though LA swept Miami in their two regular season meetings, the momentum the Heat have gathered to this point should work in their favor. Against the odds as the fifth seed in the East, ² Miami posted an unlikely 12-3 record in the playoffs while eliminating some of the best teams in the league - most notably the Bucks, the winningest team in the during the regular season. They were able to do this by playing hard-nosed defense, ² while posting an impressive defensive rating of 109.4, and causing 13 turnovers per 100 possessions. As great as all of this sounds, the Heat will still have to bring their lunch-pail to this one, as the Lakers were one of the best offensive teams in the playoffs ² with an offensive rating of 115.6 and a team field goal percentage of just under 50%. There are many other factors that are going to determine this series, so let's dive right in.


I'll start with the matchups. More specifically, who's going to guard LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Of course, there's no completely stopping these two super-stars, but I believe that Miami has the potential to slow them down. First, let's talk about defending LeBron: one of the most difficult players to guard the NBA has ever seen. The Heat will have to show many defensive looks to throw him off, and they have just the players that can do it.³ Over the past seven years, Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder have held LeBron to an average shooting percentage of 41.7%, second lowest by individual defenders during that span.² That's 10.7% less than his normal shooting percentage over that period. Throw another strong defender at him like Andre Iguodala, and it will make for a very frustrated LeBron. If Miami is able to impede LeBron from scoring, they will then need to fear one of his best abilities: his passing. In the same vein, they will need to worry about who he is passing the ball to. Enter Anthony Davis. The Robin to LeBron's Batman; AD is going to be a huge factor in this series. He's one of the most dynamic big men the in NBA history and he can hurt you in many ways. Miami will have to rely on their emerging star, Bam Adebayo to check him on defense. Despite inexperience, Bam has the tools to guard Anthony Davis ⁴ as he was second in the league with 49.57 defensive points saved (DPS) per 100 possessions. To give you some perspective, the only player with higher DPS this season was Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won Defensive Player of the Year. It will also be a challenge to keep Anthony Davis off the glass, as Miami is the smaller team. The Heat will have to lean on Bam's ability to box-out AD, which is reasonable because ² he out-rebounded AD by an average of 2.1 boards a game during the playoffs. Yes, stopping two of the top five players in the NBA will prove to be a tall task for the Heat, but it's not impossible.


Let's assume that the Heat are able to slow down LeBron and AD. The Lakers will need to find a third reliable scorer that has eluded them all season. They will look to players like Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Rajon Rondo to step up and be an extra spark if their offense stalls out, and it will be interesting to see if any of them can pull it off. If the Lakers' defense is as solid as it's been through the entire playoffs (² defensive rating of 108.1), the Heat will also need to be prepared to find other ways to supplement their offense incase their all-stars fizzle out. Luckily, they have players like Goran Dragić, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson, who each have proven that they can contribute 20+ points on any given night and could pick up the slack if needed. The role players in this series will be an x-factor for both of the teams, and I'm worried about where the Lakers will find the extra boost they'll need. Obviously the players are the most important aspect of this matchup, but one last thing that needs to be considered is the coaching.


It can be argued that coaching in the NBA is not as significant as it is in other major league sports, but that's not the case in the NBA Finals. These two teams are actually more similar than you'd think, ² with their offensive ratings only differing only by 1.1 points and their defensive rating only differing by 1.3 points - so coaching will prove to be a difference maker. LA's head coach Frank Vogel is a talented coach with playoff experience, but he finds himself in uncharted waters in the Finals. He'll need to focus on executing plays to get his shooters open behind the arch and finding ways to keep the ball out of Jimmy Butler's hands. Normally Avery Bradley would draw the assignment of guarding Butler, but since he opted out of the bubble, Vogel will have to get a little creative. On the other side of the coin, we have Erik Spoelstra, who is no stranger to the Finals. From 2011-2014, Coach Spo lead Miami to four straight Finals, winning two of them. Now, I can't ignore the fact that he had LeBron on those teams, but I believe that bodes well for Spo. He knows LeBron's strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies more than most opposing coaches, and he'll need to use that knowledge to formulate an effective defensive plan against him and AD. Limiting points in the paint is paramount if the Heat are going to win, ⁵ as the Lakers averaged 52.3 points near the bucket this year. The old adage is true: defense wins championships, and both of these coaches will need to prioritize defensive execution if they want to lift the banner.


Look, I'm not in the business of making predictions - but it's pretty clear who my favorite to win is. I LOVE how Miami matches up against LA, and I'm a sucker for an underdog. But it won't be easy. As Jimmy Butler said, "If you want to win, you are going to have to go through a LeBron James led team," and they've got their work cut out for them. Along with continuing to play hard defense, they will need to improve on their ² offensive rating of 114.5 to get them over the hump. Conversely, the Lakers are under extreme scrutiny with the lofty expectations put on them by fans and media. Any team led by LeBron is expected to win, and the amount of pressure on the Lakers is enormous with the added fact that they desperately want to win for Kobe. But these players are no strangers to adversity. The entire bubble scenario has been incredibly strenuous on everybody involved, so even just making it to the Finals is all the more impressive. The NBA playoffs is a crucible by itself, but add in the fact that these players have been away from their homes and families for months makes it all the more difficult. After everything the players have gone through in the bubble, whichever team lifts the Larry O'Brien trophy when the dust settles will undoubtably deserve it - and I can't wait until the first tip-off.


 

Sources:


¹ NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) "Miami Heat x Los Angeles Lakers. This is the first time in the NBA history that the two teams matching up in the NBA Finals did not reach the postseason the season prior." 9/27/2020. 10:53pm. Tweet.


² 2020 NBA Playoffs Summary. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.basketball-reference.com/playoffs/NBA_2020.html


³ Lowest FG Pct Allowed Since 2013-14 as Closest Defender vs LeBron James (Min. 75 FGA) [Television broadcast]. (2020, September 28). Sports Center. ESPN.


⁴ Guerrero, Omar. (2019, November 20). Advanced Stats Prove Bam Adebayo Among Best Defenders in NBA. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://heatnation.com/media/advanced-stats-prove-bam-adebayo-best-defenders-nba/


⁵ NBA Team Points in Paint per Game. (n.d.). Retrieved September 30, 2020, from https://www.teamrankings.com/nba/stat/points-in-paint-per-game

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