2020 NBA Finals | Lakers vs. Heat

2020 NBA Finals Preview: LeBron faces former squad, rebuilt in his wake

2020 NBA Finals Preview: Lakers vs. Heat

The coincidence of this series is quite delicious and will own the intrigue and conversation until the ball goes up Wednesday in Game 1. LeBron James will be playing against the team he helped win a pair of championships. This scenario will get heavy airplay in the build-up, as it should; LeBron was a solid favorite to return to the championship round once the Lakers got Anthony Davis, while the Heat make for a surprise guest. The Lakers bring a pair of All-NBA first-team members while Miami hasn’t had anyone on that level since … LeBron left town, six summers ago.

That’s not to suggest Miami doesn’t belong. The Heat chopped through arguably a tougher path than the Lakers by beating the Bucks and Celtics and did so without too much of a sweat. Most important, the confidence and swagger of the younger players is soaring. Miami is placing a burden on rookie Tyler Herro and second-year players Bam Adebayo and Duncan Robinson; none of the three have shivered from stage fright. Rather than settle for simply growing into being a contender, the Heat’s mindset is to win right now. It’s the mindset that might be the best thing going for Miami in a series where they cannot match talent-for-talent against the Lakers’ Big Two.

It’s astonishing how much of Jimmy Butler’s cut-throat personality has rubbed off on the Miami roster. This team embraced his attitude from Day One and no matter what the situation, the Heat refuse to back down. It’s a credit to Butler, who didn’t respect the personnel in Minnesota or Philly and followed his instincts to Miami, which at the time didn’t have proven stars such as Karl Anthony-Towns or Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, yet had a spirited group that apparently lacked only a leader.

However, if the heavily-favored Lakers maintain the same intensity they played with in the previous three rounds, then this could be more than Miami can handle. LeBron is playing in his 10th NBA Finals and is four wins away from his fourth title, which he’d win for a third team. He’s eager to accomplish that rare feat and knows where it’ll place him in the pecking order of all-time great players. With LeBron locked in and Davis enjoying his deepest run into the postseason, can you envision any scenario in which the Lakers, assuming their two superstars are aligned, are outplayed in a championship series where stars almost always prevail?

For the storied Lakers franchise, this 17th championship is theirs to lose.

Three things to watch

1. Can Goran Dragic maintain his high level for yet another series?

The crafty lefty is not only playing at an elevated level, but also doing so consistently. He’s the Heat’s leading scorer, doing so by drawing fouls, attacking the rim and shooting from deep. Dragic wasn’t expected to be a primary option this late in his career, but he’s tossing water on that theory. If this continues, he’ll be a handful for Danny Green and Rajon Rondo, the Lakers’ best — and really only — defensive guards.

2. How can the Lakers take advantage of their size?

After sitting Dwight Howard during the Rockets series, the Lakers unleashed the big man and he left an impression against the Nuggets. This time it’s a bit tricky: Miami lacks a scoring-minded center, despite how productive Bam Adebayo was in the closeout game against the Celtics. Howard’s minutes might be rationed again, unless Adebayo gets his number called more often than anticipated. The Lakers can put LeBron on Bam and get away with it.

3. Will the Heat’s young shooters cause problems for L.A.?

The Heat’s 3-point shooting was spotty in their last three games against the Celtics, but make no mistake: A team with Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro must be respected at all times. The only question about those two young players is whether the bright lights will be too blinding. But if you listen to Jimmy Butler, that question need not be asked. Both are shooting 38% in the playoffs and if Jae Crowder and Dragic each get into a rhythm, then the Lakers will have their hands full trying to spread their defense. Butler is making a habit of feeding Robinson and Herro constantly through the first three quarters to keep their confidence up.

Number to know

40.7 — The Lakers have averaged 40.7 points per game in the restricted area in the playoffs. That’s down from a league-high 44.1 in the regular season, but still 7.5 more than any other team has averaged in the postseason.

By wide margins, the Lakers rank first in both field goal percentage in the restricted area (70.9%) and the percentage of their shots that have come in the restricted area (34%). LeBron James is responsible for almost half (48%) of their 610 restricted area points via his own buckets (87) and assists (59).

The Lakers have shot better from outside the paint in the playoffs (37.7%, effective field goal percentage of 50.4%) than they did in the regular season (35.5%, 47.7%). But protecting the rim remains extra critical in regard to slowing down the offense that ranked No. 1 in each of the last two rounds (114.4 points scored per 100 possessions in the conference semis, 117.8 per 100 in the conference finals).

That’s why we may see a lot more 2-3 zone from the Heat in The Finals. The Lakers scored 39 points on 35 possessions against Miami’s zone in the regular season and offer a different look than Boston with their two-big lineups. Though the Celtics got a lot more comfortable against the zone late in the last round, the Heat stuck with it, and it was critical in their fourth-quarter comeback in Game 6.

Most importantly, while open jumpers can be found against it with proper execution, the zone keeps Bam Adebayo near the basket a lot more than the Heat’s man-to-man defense. Against this particular opponent, allowing open jumpers is far more preferable than allowing shots at the rim.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

The Heat will not be out-hustled or bring a lack of energy or purpose. Not with Erik Spoelstra coaching. And they haven’t lacked for fire during any lengthy stretches of play. Yet in order to make this a long series — much less win it — Miami must be the bully almost every minute of every game. The LeBron-AD tag-team is awfully difficult to defend or stop. Lasting this long in the postseason without a top-10 player is a massive accomplishment for the Heat, and one it might need to settle for, because Cinderellas just don’t win four times in seven tries. LeBron can hear his legacy calling and he’s about to answer. Lakers in 6.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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