A typical NBA season lasts roughly eight months, starting in October and ending in June. The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat have not played one another since December of 2019, over nine months ago. It has literally been over an entire season since these two teams met, and it has shown in the bubble.
The underwhelming No. 5 seed Miami was before the shutdown? That team is gone, replaced with the juggernaut that just went 12-3 across the Eastern Conference playoffs. Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder hopped aboard in February. The Lakers added a similar veteran in Markieff Morris, and raced through the Western Conference with an identical record. This isn't the Finals series that we predicted. It isn't even one that either team could credibly be prepared for. Functionally speaking, these teams have never played each other.
They'll get their first look at one another on Wednesday when the series tips off, but what should they expect to find when it does? Here are the five biggest questions entering the NBA Finals.
Most teams use zone defenses as a brief gimmick. The Heat rely on it to a historic degree. They used zone defenses on 11.6 percent of their defensive possessions this season. Only three teams use zones even half as often. Against the Boston Celtics, it was practically their base defense in second halves, and it stifled them for most of the series. Eventually, Boston started poking holes in the zone. The biggest was the area around the nail. Daniel Theis was free to operate in that space with near impunity.
Size is a key antidote to a 2-3 defense. Once a big man sneaks behind the zone, it's a simple matter of getting him the ball for an easy dunk or layup.
But those bigs were supplementary to Boston's perimeter players. Shooting is the true antidote to a zone, and by the end of the series, the entire Boston roster had a green light. The Celtics took 46 3-pointers in their Game 6 loss. The Lakers have not matched that total all season, nor should they want to. Contrary to the majority of the league, the Lakers tend to win when they take fewer 3-pointers. They went 12-2 in regular-season games in which they attempted 26 or more 3-pointers, but only 13-9 in games in which they attempted 35 or more. The Lakers aren't built to win from behind the arc. The question here is whether or not they'll need to.
The early guess here is no. That zone that stifled Boston for an entire series? The Lakers solved it in under a game. Miami used zone on 32 defensive possessions in their first regular-season game... and only eight in their rematch after the Lakers scored an even point per possession against it in Los Angeles. That hole around the nail? The Lakers realized quickly that if they parked Anthony Davis there, good things would happen.
Just as Boston's big men managed to sneak behind the zone, so too did the Laker centers. Davis found them.
He managed to get behind it himself as well.
But the real danger for Miami is Davis' mid-range range shooting. Davis is taking more mid-range shots per game this postseason than any player besides LaMarcus Aldridge did during the regular season. He's making 50.6 percent of them. To put that number into perspective, Kobe Bryant didn't reach it in any of his five championship seasons. Kevin Durant did only once before joining the Golden State Warriors. That later version of Durant along with 2011 Dirk Nowitzki are the only real parallels to what Davis has done this postseason. He killed the Heat on those very shots.
In all honesty, the Heat might spin the regression wheel and just let Davis take those shots because the math says he's going to start missing them. Davis was a 35.5 percent mid-range shooter during the regular season, which is generally around where he falls. Of course, those shots weren't nearly as open as the zone looks he'd get in this matchup. For all intents and purposes, these are free-throws. Davis makes 80 percent of those. Is feeding him a steady diet of such shots worthwhile?
Maybe... but probably not. The primary benefit of a 2-3 zone is its ability to keep drivers out of the lane, something the Heat would love to do against James. But LeBron's passing is the ultimate zone-buster. Just look at this easy read Kemba Walker got to make when Miami overplayed his drive. He essentially had two easy passes into layups available. LeBron doesn't miss stuff like this.
The Heat can pick their poison. LeBron scores 30 against a traditional defense. A zone might keep him closer to 20... but with 20 assists. Combine that with the threat Davis poses around the free-throw line, and in all likelihood, the Heat realize pretty quickly that the Lakers won't be zoned out of this series as the Celtics were.
2. Who do the Lakers start?
Four Lakers starters are set in stone. Barring something unforeseen, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green are locked in. There are three contenders for the fifth spot, and who the Lakers pick says quite a bit about their priorities in this matchup. JaVale McGee started for most of the season. Markieff Morris took his place in the Houston series. Dwight Howard got the nod in the last two games against Denver.
McGee probably gets the Game 1 nod off of inertia alone. Morris didn't move into the starting five against Houston until Game 4. Ditto with Howard against Denver. Frank Vogel tends to lean vanilla in Game 1's. He'll want to see how the base unit matches up. If he wants to play big, though, Howard proved his superiority in the Denver series, and it needs to be noted that across nearly 300 regular-season minutes, the version of the starting five with both McGee and Caldwell-Pope was outscored by opponents. The more pertinent question is whether Vogel will start a center at all.
Morris makes more sense on paper for a few reasons. As rarely as the Lakers take 3-pointers, they need the threat of such shots to properly space the floor against a zone. The defense becomes easier to align with Morris on the floor. If the Lakers play a center, that center has to guard Bam Adebayo, which complicates matters for Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Only one of them gets the plum Jae Crowder assignment, which essentially amounts to serving as an extra help defender. What would the other do? LeBron isn't chasing Duncan Robinson around screens. That's a waste of his energy. The same goes for the Goran Dragic assignment.
The unorthodox solution to this might be starting Davis on Jimmy Butler. That comes with the risk of foul trouble, and the Lakers would surely prefer not to tire Davis out like that. But Butler doesn't shoot many 3-pointers, freeing Davis up to chip in with his typical help responsibilities. This won't be Vogel's first choice, though, and it's why Morris should eventually be the choice.
But Howard offers undeniable benefits. Miami's pesky guards rebound well above their weight class, but Howard boxes out so well on the offensive glass that he could mitigate that advantage. The added layer of rim-protection doesn't hurt either. And just as going big mucks up the defensive matchups on their end, it does the same to Miami. If Adebayo is glued to Davis, does Crowder have to hang with Howard inside? If so, is Butler starting games on LeBron? That's surely how the Heat will handle crunch time, but asking him to do so for extended periods would take an enormous toll on his offense. It wouldn't solve the Howard lob problem either.
The Lakers are the favorite here. They'd prefer to control the terms of engagement. Punting away their identity to match up with a No. 5 seed isn't going to be their first choice. But Eastern Conference graveyards are filled with teams that underestimated the Heat. If small-ball is the endgame, there's no use in fighting the inevitable.
3. Who plays backup center for the Heat?
Miami started the playoffs small once it decided to move Adebayo to center to full-time. The Boston series pushed the Heat even further into that extreme. By the end of the series, Andre Iguodala was their backup center. The logic was sound. Boston's big men were so flawed that none could adequately punish them for it. Iguodala gives the Heat the flexibility to switch just about everything defensively and adds an extra slice of ball-handling to the offense. One of the tradeoffs should have been shooting. The Celtics assumed as much and left Iguodala wide open behind the arc. How'd that go?
The Lakers will make the same bet if the Heat stick with their smaller bench unit. Statistically, it's the right play. Iguodala is a 33.3 percent career 3-point shooter. That figure improves in the postseason, but only gradually, despite what anecdotal evidence would have you believe. The Lakers will live with Iguodala shooting 3's if it means Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro aren't, especially if it means clearing the lane for LeBron.
The alternative of Meyers Leonard or Kelly Olynyk solves the spacing issue, but it also places a "kick me" sign squarely on the back of its defense. If LeBron sees either, he's going to switch-hunt them out of the series. Miami can counter with its zone, but neither offers much resistance at the rim, either.
The Heat want to play fast defensively and are willing to sacrifice size to do it. Bam is their only big man capable of doing so. But assuming his minutes are tethered to Davis', that leaves a fairly gaping hole in the rotation when those two need to sit. LeBron gives the Lakers a major advantage in those minutes. If Erik Spoelstra has any defensive tricks up his sleeve, those minutes would be the time to unleash them.
4. Who controls the pace?
The Lakers rely on transition as their primary source of offense and find ways to manufacture it even against slow teams. The Nuggets are 29th in pace, for instance, but the Lakers forced the issue by running after made shots.
The Nuggets were so unprepared for this that the broadcast routinely cut to the Denver scorer and missed the play in transition.
That last play is particularly telling. The Lakers let Davis leak out into transition fairly frequently. So prepared are they for that transition opportunity that LeBron seemingly decides against contesting Jokic because he knows he has two free points waiting for him on the other end if he doesn't.
The difference between Denver and Miami is intent. The Nuggets are slow because they want to play slowly offensively. The defensive byproduct is almost incidental. The Heat were built to suffocate transition. Unlike Denver's lumbering bigs, the Heat are so athletic that they can get back on defense quickly enough to shut down fast breaks even after made shots. The Nuggets emphasize offensive rebounding after missed shots, and ranked third on that front. The Heat ranked 23rd, preferring to get back on defense.
The Heat have a significant advantage if this becomes a half-court series merely by virtue of their shooting. Miami scored the third-most points per halfcourt play during the regular season, per Cleaning the Glass. The Lakers were 19th. They've found ways to run against Denver and Houston, but the Heat represent their most difficult obstacle yet on that front.
5. Is Miami's fourth-quarter dominance sustainable?
Through the first three quarters of their 15 playoff games, the Heat have outscored their opponents by a total of seven points. In fourth quarters? They are an astounding plus-68. That is the eighth-best figure by any team this century, and the Heat still have a round to improve upon it. But will they? That's not quite as clear.
Clutch numbers are notoriously unsustainable, but Miami's actual clutch play largely isn't. They've benefitted from a bit of good luck when it comes to opponent's shooting, but their own shooting numbers are around where you'd expect. They have a proven fourth-quarter commodity in Butler, and their team-wide ball-handling is enormously valuable late in games when individual creation is prized. There's also the matter of their opponent.
LeBron's fourth-quarter credentials are beyond reproach. His 2007 Cavaliers had the best playoff fourth-quarter point-differential this century at plus-99, and his individual track record is just as impressive. In his last completed playoff run, he scored 47 total clutch points. No other player even reached 30. While he's struggled in the fourth quarter for most of this postseason, his 16 fourth-quarter points led the Lakers past the Nuggets in their Western Conference finals clincher.
In other words, if the Heat really are one of the best fourth-quarter teams in recent NBA history, they'll have to prove it in this series. Beating young and inexperienced teams is one thing. Beating LeBron is quite another.
Assuming the gap between LeBron and Davis and everyone else in this series is as great as we think it is, the Heat have two plausible paths to victory here. The first involves winning the 3-point battle by a margin great enough to offset the Lakers' star-power. It's possible but unlikely. The Lakers shot 42.2 percent on wide-open 3's over the past two rounds. That's unsustainable, but it's proof that they can at least make the easy ones.
The other path is the one that the Heat took against Boston: keep it close, and then just win every game at the end. Considering the Heat were 24th in regular-season clutch net rating and are about to face LeBron James in the NBA Finals, that doesn't seem all that plausible either. The Heat aren't going to roll over. This is going to be a close series. But at the end of the day, James has earned greater trust than this Heat team. He's going to walk away with a hard-earned fourth championship ring. Lakers in Seven