The conference finals ended with LeBron James and Bam Adebayo going on fourth-quarter scoring sprees. On Wednesday, James and Anthony Davis will meet Adebayo and Jimmy Butler in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and the matchup is partially a reflection of how stellar these stars have been in the bubble.
It would be wrong, though, to reduce this story to that of a few stars carrying their respective teams. Just as it is wrong to reduce the shortcomings of the teams that didn't make this far to the individual failures of Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo or whoever's turn it is to take a beating.
"Sometimes, there's an attempt to make basketball like a black-or-white deal," Steve Jones Jr. said. "And there's a lot of gray. And the gray is where the fun stuff is. The gray is where you learn the most about the game."
Jones spent three years with the Memphis Grizzlies, sharpening what he calls his "basketball eye" in their video room, before two years with the Brooklyn Nets, where he was an assistant coach for player development in 2015-16. Growing up, the son of legendary broadcaster Steve "Snapper" Jones, he learned to focus on the why, not the what -- his father peppered him with questions during and after games.
On Twitter, Jones breaks down clips and shares his notes -- if you'd like to see the game like a coach, it is a good place to start. His goal is to add context and color to the discussion; to him, you can appreciate a spectacular individual performance more if you understand what the opponent tried to do and how the player overcame it.
I talked to Jones to try to make sense of what we've seen in the playoffs. This is my attempt to apply the broader lessons to what we're about to watch in the Finals:
1. Keep it moving
When Jones watches games, he can hear his father talking about ball movement and player movement. "He preached it to me," Jones said. "I think he said it almost on any telecast he was on." If one team is in constant motion, putting pressure on the defense, and the other is moving slowly, running one action and forcing a shot, "that kind of thing jumps off the screen to me."
That contrast was never more obvious than the fourth quarter of Game 7 between the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Clippers. Denver was "relentless," Jones said, targeting Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell in pick-and-rolls, bending Los Angeles' defense. On the other end, the Clippers were stunningly stagnant down the stretch.
"They didn't have the tempo of a team that was down in that situation," Jones said. "It was just weird. So it's one of those things where, if you're putting yourself in a position where you're starting your play at 14, 15 seconds, at this point you're in trouble. You may have the best player in the world, but it becomes pretty much a coin flip at that point. And the defense is probably going to be OK with it, in the sense that they don't really have to move or guard or do anything."
We are used to talking about pace, but tempo in the halfcourt might be more important. And matchup-hunting doesn't always mean an isolation play or a post-up with everybody else watching -- the Heat consistently targeted Kemba Walker in the conference finals the same way the Nuggets went after Williams and Harrell: Within the flow of their offense.
"It's not one-on-one with four guys standing all the time," Jones said. "I think sometimes that gets misconstrued."
Ball movement and player movement are baked into the Heat's offense, and the Lakers just got finished dealing with a team that functions similarly in the conference finals. Miami has more playmakers than the Nuggets, though, so it will likely be more difficult to defend. For the Heat, the challenge will be continuing to play to their identity against a defense even better than Boston's. They got a lot of mileage out of attacking Walker, but the Lakers don't have anybody like Walker in their starting lineup. If Los Angeles stays big with Dwight Howard, you can expect Miami to put him in pick-and-rolls, a situation in which he struggled against the Denver.
The Lakers are not known for their motion. James does the lion's share of the playmaking, and Rajon Rondo runs the show when he goes to the bench. At their best, though, they hurt teams with well-timed cuts and pinpoint passes. Against the Heat, they need to limit the amount of possessions where they look their worst: playing deep into the shot clock, standing around, ending possessions with tough 2s and contested 3s.
Halfcourt offense is the Lakers' biggest weakness, but it's not as if James should have difficulty creating an advantage for his team. Every time he picks on Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson or Herro, he will do so with the intention of forcing help, not necessarily scoring. Miami is a well-connected defensive team, and against the Celtics it often used a 2-2-1 press before going into its 2-3 zone to take time off the clock. Los Angeles needs to get into its actions quickly, avoid bogging down and do everything it can to make the Heat rotate until they make a mistake.
2. Switch it up
Today's best teams have to be able to use -- and score against -- multiple defensive coverages. Switching has been unavoidable for years, and now, thanks largely to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, zone defense has joined the party. Boston barely escaped its second-round series largely because it had trouble scoring against Toronto's various zones, and Miami went to its 2-3 zone in the conference finals after not using it at all in the first two rounds.
At times, including for fairly long stretches of the final game of their season, the Celtics looked comfortable against the Heat's zone. They got into the teeth of it with pick-and-rolls and with dribble penetration, either finishing in the lane or kicking the ball out to the perimeter. At other times, they were indecisive, thrown off by the long and athletic defenders on the perimeter.
Playing zone might mean giving up more open jumpers than normal, but the idea is that the shooters will not be getting them the same way they usually do. Walker is one of the best pick-and-roll guards on the planet, and the point of zoning up against him is to not let him make his normal pick-and-roll reads. If the Heat do this against the Lakers, it will be about disrupting James' flow, essentially letting them switch while keeping Adebayo near the basket.
Adebayo might be the most versatile defensive player in basketball. He rebounds and protects the rim like a traditional center, but he can stay in front of point guards with ease. He allows Miami to switch more screens than most teams, which, just like a zone, prevents playmakers like Walker and James from doing what they normally do.
"The thing that switching does to you is it keeps everything in front," Jones said. "So you've got to get that mix of cutting, you've got to keep moving the ball. Have a big flash, cut off of that. Set another screen. And just keep them doing that until you can find that opening."
In Game 3 of the conference finals, Miami had a tough time doing that against Boston's switches. Over the course of the series, though, the Heat were more often able to go from one action into another seamlessly. This is the defining feature of their offense, and most teams don't have enough different ways to hurt you to pull it off the same way.
The Lakers, meanwhile, started the conference finals switching Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic's two-man game, in an effort to take away Jokic's pick-and-pop 3s. They also threw the Nuggets off with a 2-3 zone in the fourth quarter of Game 3, triggering a massive run.
Maybe that Lakers zone will make an appearance in the Finals. If it doesn't, then Los Angeles' big questions are how often and in what situations it will be comfortable switching Davis and Howard onto Miami's perimeter players. The Lakers will have to be careful switching anything involving Adebayo, as he is a master of slipping to the basket -- or, if it's a dribble-handoff, simply keeping the ball and driving -- for easy dunks.
On the other end, how often will Adebayo switch onto James? Can he contain James without fouling? Boston found some success getting him matched up with shooters, then keeping him away from the action, but Los Angeles might not have the personnel to do that effectively.
The more interesting variable, though, is how much zone the Heat will play. On the surface, it's an obvious move against a team that doesn't have a multitude of playmakers or elite shooting, but the Lakers have been eating teams alive on the offensive glass and they can play through James or Davis in the high post. It's worth trying, but it's risky.
3. Winning requires shapeshifting
The Lakers looked terrible in Game 1 of their second-round series against the Houston Rockets, then they benched their traditional centers and everything changed. Davis was everywhere on defense, and Houston didn't have answers for the way the Lakers cheated off of Russell Westbrook, trapped James Harden late in the clock and ran its shooters off the 3-point line.
"The way they defended Houston, the books they didn't give them, containing certain driving lanes, the doubles they would hit Harden with, the timing of those doubles, I thought that the Lakers' defense could've been appreciated a bit more," Jones said. "Because that wasn't easy."
It wouldn't have worked if Rondo and Markieff Morris hadn't emerged as two-way contributors. On the other side, Houston had no way to replace Westbrook's offensive production -- he was not fully healthy -- or Danuel House's versatility. House, who didn't play after Game 2 because he had an unauthorized guest in his hotel room, was an important part of their smallball lineups.
"They gotta have certain personnel out there to make the system work, to make the spacing work," Jones said. "A guy who can shoot, defend, drive a little bit off closeouts and have size -- when you don't have another one of those, it looks different."
Los Angeles went big again in the Denver series, but continued to use Davis at the 5, too. Coach Frank Vogel has done an impressive job balancing his rotation, and he'll surely try a mix of big and small looks against Miami. If they're getting lobs, offensive rebounds and free throws when they're big, then they should be able to stay that way, as long as they're not getting burned in pick-and-roll defense. If they're switching effectively, spacing the floor and getting to the rim when they're smaller, then Vogel might have to consider returning to what worked against the Rockets.
While Miami hasn't changed its starting five in the playoffs, it has also shifted shapes. The Heat wouldn't be here without completely changing their approach from the regular season, in which they started Kendrick Nunn and Meyers Leonard.
The Heat have often gone centerless when Adebayo has gone to the bench, with Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder in the frontcourt. "The best small lineups are the one that can play both ends," Jones said, and now Miami will find out if this one can get stops against the Lakers. If Los Angeles doesn't match the Heat by going small, then they will be vulnerable on the glass, but they could make up for that with quickness, length and switchability. Unlike the team they beat in the second round, we at least know that they will try to do that.
"That was part of my problem with Milwaukee," Jones said. "Even when they would go small at times, they would keep their guards in a drop. They would keep Giannis in a drop. And it's like, well, you're kind of losing the advantage of a small lineup here, what are you doing?"
Solomon Hill didn't get a playoff minute until Game 4 of the conference finals, but remained in the rotation for the rest of the series. Leonard's only appearance was in Game 3 against the Bucks. Kelly Olynyk, Derrick Jones Jr. and Nunn have all been in and out of the rotation, too, and coach Erik Spoelstra will likely tinker with his lineup combinations against the Lakers. He wasn't afraid to close out the conference finals without Dragic on the court.
4. Adapt or die
The way these teams look in Game 1 could be drastically different from the way they look in Game 4. "I think the one thing I've learned about this bubble playoffs, " Jones said, "is the teams that can take what they do and adapt it when a team is trying to make them do something else are continuing to advance." That means tweaking schemes as well as rotations. It could be something as simple as Miami figuring out how to get Robinson going if the Lakers don't let him get free in the opener, or Los Angeles deciding whether or not Davis is more valuable guarding Adebayo or helping off of Crowder.
"That's the most fun part of the playoffs to me," Jones said. "Those are the kind of things that I'm trying to watch because those are the kind of things that unlock a series."
As easy as it is to blame the best player when a team loses, these smaller storylines are often "the things that end up having your stars looking a certain way," Jones said. When the Clippers were having trouble with the Dallas Mavericks, part of the problem was that they weren't prepared for Seth Curry, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. all being reliable offensive threats. For Jones, this was similar to Reggie Jackson taking the Grizzlies by surprise in a 2014 series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In that case, Memphis didn't have an effective counter. "We always talk about adjustments, but we never talk about the point in the series where the adjustments have been made," Jones said. In the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics' five-out lineup worked the first time they used it, but when coach Brad Stevens tried it later on, it didn't. By the end of the series, there were multiple problems they hadn't solved -- they couldn't get away with hiding Walker on Herro, and they didn't have an answer for Adebayo, especially when he was setting screens for Dragic.
Herro's playmaking has fundamentally changed Miami's offense, and if he can't keep it up against the Lakers' defense, it will not be as scary. On the other side, Rondo has been phenomenal throughout the playoffs, and Los Angeles will be in a rough spot if its offense reverts to falling apart whenever James goes to the bench. Howard is also a player to monitor: he has had a terrific bounce back season, but if he's hurting their spacing, putting Miami in the bonus and unable to dominate the boards, this matchup isn't for him.
If Miami is showing lots of help against James and Davis early on and the Lakers' role players aren't making shots, what will Vogel do to make their offense come to life? The same question applies to Spoelstra if Crowder, whose shooting finally fell off against Boston, doesn't pick it up again. Through three rounds, both of these teams have been able to solve their problems. All they know for sure is that they're going to face more of them.