The 12th of March feels like aeons ago now. However, it wasn’t that long ago that medical personnel were rushing to postpone the regular season NBA game between the Jazz and the Thunder moments before tip-off. Since then, in the world of basketball, we have had a global pandemic, major uncertainty whether or not the NBA would return, a powerful and important campaign against social injustice across the United States and two months of bubble basketball.
But we’re finally here. On Wednesday the 2020 NBA Finals commence between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat. The Lakers punched their ticket by beating the Denver Nuggets, 4 games to 1. The Heat reached the Finals by outplaying the Boston Celtics, 4 games to 2. Both ball clubs have a serious shot at winning the Larry O’Brien trophy. Yet, only one can. So let’s break it down.
The assiduous Spoelstra
Arguably, Miami’s biggest advantage in this series comes, not on the floor, but from the sidelines. Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has been on fire since the start of the 2020 season, culminating in a coaching masterclass against the boy wonder Brad Stevens in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Spoelstra confused and off-set the Boston Celtics’ offence by using a simple zone coverage, preventing Boston shooting threes efficiently. Although Spoelstra kept it simple against the Celtics, he was smart enough to not overthink things. Moreover, Spoelstra has taken this group of talented, yet not premier level, players to the Finals.
Per Basketball-Reference, only Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson have coached more Finals games than Spoelstra. That’s quite the company to keep. Spoelstra is in many ways the personification of this Heat team. The former champion is hardworking, determined and selfless. His personal ethos has bled throughout this organisation and melds perfectly with players such as Jimmy Butler or Bam Adebayo. The greatest teams in history were often a reflection of their coach. That’s why when dysfunctional teams implode, it’s often the coach who is first to go.
Butler and Bam
It’s no secret that Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are the heartbeats of this Miami Heat team. All year Butler has attracted plaudits for his demeanour on and off the court. At first, Butler’s choice to join the Heat was met with a great deal of scepticism. Most believed that Butler had just given up on winning and given in to the temptations of South Beach. Flash forward a year and Butler is leading his team in the Finals. He deserves every modicum of praise that comes his way.
On the court, Butler operates similar to how LeBron James functions for the Lakers. The Miami Heat forward handles the ball, initiates the offence on occasion and is borderline unstoppable once he drives to the basket. Furthermore, Butler can also take a step back and prosper as a cog in this system that Erik Spoelstra has designed. The former 76er can dish the basketball, screen, cut and make a jumper if the offence breaks down. If Butler catches fire this series, expect him to push James – something only a select few of NBA players can do.
— Jimmy Butler (@JimmyButler) September 28, 2020
Butler’s partner in crime, Bam Adebayo, is equally as, if not more important to this Heat team. Bam shares the same long list of intangible traits you desire in a competitor as Butler – determination, grit and passion. Adebayo played poorly in Game Five against Boston but rallied back to dominate the Celtics in Game 6, scoring 32 points in the process.
With that in mind, Bam also plays an incredibly composed game. Standing at 6ft 9 inches, Bam is one of the smaller, more fleet-footed centres in the NBA. The big man can execute the offence at an extremely high level from the elbow, viewing the game at a Jokic-like level. Adebayo can also drive to the rim against less-agile centres (I’m looking at you, JaVale McGee).
Jimmy Butler told reporters that Bam Adebayo was “the heart and soul of this thing.” Butler went on to say “he’s going to be the reason we win a championship.” Weighty words from Butler, but despite the praise they carry, it will take both Bam and Butler to fire on all cylinders to beat the Lakers.
The Other Guys
It may be terribly cliche at this point, but your chances of winning an NBA title are heightened by the quality of your depth. You’re only as good as your worst player. And luckily for the Heat, they have some firecrackers ready to take the game to L.A. The two most important of those ‘other guys’ being fearless rookie Tyler Herro and steady sharpshooter Duncan Robinson.
Herro has seemingly had his breakout moment in his first postseason, scoring 37 points in Game Four against Boston. Herro’s ability to come off screens, drive the ball to the basket off of a killer pump-fake and take the ball up the court when either Dragic or Butler are on the bench is impressive. However, as with so many of these Heat guys, it’s his character, his fearlessness, his willingness to take the shot that makes him a real issue to play against.
Another guy not afraid to pull the trigger on this Heat offence is Duncan Robinson. Robinson is as accurate as they come, draining 5 of 8 shots (71.4%) from beyond the arc in Game Six against Boston. Before that Game Six, Robinson had struggled shooting somewhat during this postseason, only making over 35% of his 3’s six times in fifteen games. However, Robinson showed the mark of a true shooter and stayed composed and trusted in himself and his shot. An impressive feat for a player in only his second season.
As we all know, this will be LeBron James’ tenth appearance in the NBA Finals. A historic achievement only three players before him have accomplished and has never been done with three separate teams. I wrote about LeBron and his tenth Finals appearance more here.
Accolades aside, on the court, LeBron is still the best player in the world. His game does not contain the same raw power and athleticism he once possessed. Nevertheless, James’ game still has that perfect, refined blend of finesse and brute force. On the technical side of the game, LeBron can decode or decrypt any defence in the league, so expect Spoelstra to switch up that basic zone used against Boston pretty fast. James is also the best passer in the game, leading the league in assists with 10.2 per game.
On the other side of the coin, James has figured out that when he generates a full head of steam, he’s unguardable. It’s either a drive to the basket for an easy 2 or a foul on the defence. As soon as he puts his head down – it is game over.
The key to ‘stopping’ James is to make him settle for shots. Unless he’s hot, Miami can live with a couple of three-point attempts. Butler and Jae Crowder must force LeBron to take deep two-pointers, mid-ranges and fade away jumpers. James can of course still make all of these shots, but it’s imperative this gritty Miami team makes him work for every inch.
Oh yea, L.A. also has the second-best player in the world too. Similar to the archetype of Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis is a guard in a 6ft 10-inch body. Davis can shoot over you, rip through you and drive past you. He also has a nasty pull up that only three players in the NBA have a hope of defending. He can also shoot the ball from beyond the arc at a high clip, shooting 36% from three this postseason, including that game-winner in Game 2 against the Nuggets.
Despite his impressive skillset, Davis will face a tough match-up in Bam Adebayo who is an elite defender. Davis may have to pick his spots to shine against Miami – like a calculating predator. If Vogel decides to stagger the minutes between his two stars, then Davis should feast on Kelly Olynyk.
The Weirdest Supporting Cast Ever Assembled
Maybe it’s a testament to how tough these guys are playing right now. Or many it’s a testament to the greatness of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Whatever the case, this rag-tag cast of characters has supported and complimented LeBron in his quest for a fourth ring nicely.
Playoff Rondo has emerged from nowhere to give the Lakers a veteran ball-handler off the bench at the perfect time. The former Celtic also has great chemistry with Anthony Davis from their days on the Pelicans. However, the pace and tenacity of this Heat team may make Rondo unplayable on the defensive end.
Some said he'd never lead the Lakers to the Finals.
Some said he was overhyped.
But he never stopped.
He never quit.
Now, Alex Caruso is headed to the NBA Finals. pic.twitter.com/zOF4o39xLM
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 27, 2020
The other guard, Alex Caruso, has earned his place on this Lakers roster as well. Although a poor three-point shooter, Caruso’s defence and passing touch on offence has helped the Lakers this postseason.
As you move further down this Lakers roster, the big men, Dwight Howard and Javale McGee have become a capable one-two tandem. Howard has looked like a new man all season long and McGee has matured following his success in the Golden State. The former ‘Shaqtin’ A Fool’ star is now a far cry from his former, lumbering self.
The Lakers may not have great quality coming off the bench, but they just have a nice blend of experience and versatility. Rondo, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, Javale McGee, they’ve all been here before. James is still playing at that high of a level to where he just needs dependable guys around him to win.