NBA Finals Preview: No Half Measures

How The HEAT Can Beat The Lakers And Earn Their Fourth NBA Championship
Miami HEAT
by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

This isn’t a mistake.

The Miami HEAT’s run to the NBA Finals in the strangest, and most heartbreaking, of years is improbable. Sure. So many things have had to go right over the last 12-plus months to get to this point that you’d be forgiven for thinking that sometime in 2019 Burnie was sent on a quest to find the Oracle of Delphi. Even then it might still shock you the degree to which everything in South Florida has been coming up Millhouse. All of that can be true, but this is not an accident.

The HEAT are in the NBA Finals because they plan to be.

Best laid plans guarantee nothing. There’s plenty that’s out of your control in the NBA, both on and off the court. Even a sure-fire run can come to a screeching halt just the same as teams that miss the playoffs, like both the Los Angeles Lakers and HEAT, can come surging back into the picture. What matters to the HEAT is the work. Erik Spoelstra has quoted Dumb and Dumber in reference to many things over the years, ‘So you’re telling me there’s a chance?’, but there’s always a kernel of truth to it. If something can be done, this is a group of people, players and staff, that work together to do it no matter how long the odds.

“So much of this league is just about alignment,” Spoelstra said. “Who cares what you believe in, who cares what your culture is, can you get a group of people that are aligned?”

That alignment is what makes a run like this possible. It makes it so when drafting Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro in the late lottery works out exceedingly well, when you attract a star like Jimmy Butler in free agency, when veterans like Goran Dragic stand by you and trade acquisitions like Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder fit in and signings like Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn add incredible value, you’re already set up to put all those individual successes into something meaningful. There’s little to figure out. The figuring out has been done before things started working out.

And now they get to play the true underdogs, fairly. If you’re asking if the HEAT can beat an excellent Lakers team in seven games, of course they can. Things far more unlikely have gone and continue to go their way. You don’t need to look any further than the 2004 Detroit Pistons and 2011 Dallas Mavericks for teams that knocked off elite, historic collections of talent. Those teams defended, they played together, they were resilient in tough moments and in Dallas’ case they shot the ball extremely well. Sound familiar? Those teams were both undervalued headed into those series, and they didn’t get to play on a neutral court, either.

Maybe the HEAT bring home their fourth NBA title in the past 20 years. Maybe the Lakers get their sixth in the same stretch. What matters is that the HEAT plan to win until rules and regulations say they can’t. There’s a chance, probably a better one than they’re getting credit for, and they know it.

“We know who we’re facing,” Spoelstra said.

Lakers Ball

Ever try to put together a bookshelf from IKEA?

It’s not neuroscience. You crack open the surprisingly tightly sealed box that you somehow fit in your car despite it being the length of a surfboard, separate all the large pieces and rip all the plastic bags open letting the various screws and dowels and other un-nameable trinkets fall to the floor – unless you’re a maniac like yours truly who wastes time sorting out each individual piece and neatly grouping them together. Then you open up the instruction booklet which contain precious few words because Sweden, figure out what piece is what and where to start and 30 minutes to two hours later you have yourself a bookcase. Simple enough. Except, damn, you just finished step 20 and it turns out the piece you installed in Step 12 is in the wrong place and the top of the shelf isn’t fitting flush with the sides.

Well, where you put long double-sided screw F in spot 7 where it should have gone in spot 11, LeBron James just got a dunk and is now running back on defense.

Everyone knows what they want to do against James. Build the wall in transition and load up help defenders to keep him out of the paint, where even after all these years he still does a pretty good Shaquille O’Neal impersonation around the rim. If that sounds like how Miami treated League MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second round, that’s the idea Do everything you can to keep James out of the paint when he has the ball in his hands. Miami executed that scheme well before, they can do it again, right?

It’s complicated.

While Antetokounmpo is beginning his reign in the top tier of NBA players, James has seen and beaten the same coverages – he beat Golden State’s switch-everything look, too, which Miami has at times emulated – for well over a decade. Allowing for the possibility that Erik Spoelstra turns over some stone the league has missed, James has seen it all. Granted James’ jumper, a key tool to making a paint-protection scheme pay as James did against San Antonio in 2013, comes and goes as he shot about as well as Anteokounmpo on pull-up jumpers this year. But he also just ended Denver’s run with an outside flurry. Shooting will always be a variable. Where James really punishes you for missing one step in the manual is his all-time playmaking. You might be on the opposite side of the court from LeBron, ready to help in the paint, but if you’re not spaced perfectly, if you’re one step too far in one direction, he’ll whip a pinpoint pass to a shooter before you even realize the ball is in the air.

As far as defending James one-on-one, you can’t do much better than having Jimmy Butler, Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Bam Adebayo to throw at him – two of whom weren’t even on the roster when these teams last played – but defending James is rarely a one-man show. At least it isn’t until the game, and clock, dictates it.

What has separated the Lakers, offensively, from some of James’ previous world-beaters is that they haven’t been a particularly good shooting team. They aren’t bad by any means, as they made corner threes at over a 40 percent clip during the regular season and shot plenty of them thanks to James’ passing, but they were the second-worst team on above-break threes at 32.9 percent. That rate has ticked up in the playoffs as the Lakers are making non-corner threes at nearly the same rate as Miami after the HEAT struggled through the middle of the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston, but the Lakers know who they are and do their best not to fire away without a purpose.

Still, in that weakness lies Miami’s path to getting consistent stops over the course of the series.

Instead, the Lakers live at the rim where they led the league in efficiency and were second in volume. Part of that comes from them being a force in transition – something Miami typically defends well but as with everything else a good James pass can beat you even when you think you’ve done it all right – but they’re also creative about using their length and athleticism. In non-transition possessions the Lakers converted 159 lobs this season, nearly twice as many as the HEAT. The only other team over 100 was Brooklyn at 118.

One of those lob threats happens to be pretty good.

Where things get complicated with the Lakers is they also have Anthony Davis, who is so good he should never be the “also have” part of a sentence but that’s what happens when you play with LeBron. In any normal circumstance, Davis would be the focal point of your entire scheme. With Davis on the floor with James, you’re essentially trying to build two slightly different bookcases with two different sets of instructions at the same time. It’s tough enough to load up on one player. While you’re managing what you have to manage against James, staying aware at all times of the passing lanes he can use, Davis can easily slip into the small gap in the coverage and spring free. You won’t find many better defenders for Davis than Adebayo, but Adebayo is needed to help his teammates, too.

Is zone the answer? After not using it for two rounds, Erik Spoelstra went to that look for nearly 30 percent of Miami’s possessions against the Celtics. It worked, even as the Celtics grew increasingly comfortable against it, because the zone kept the ball out of the paint far better than man-to-man. Boston’s outside-in attack, despite all their weapons, often grew stagnant trying to find the seams.

Davis might be a zone-killer. The Lakers ranked No. 10 in zone offense scoring 1.18 points per possession. With Davis on the floor, in 180 possessions, that number increased to a staggering 1.24. Those numbers were consistent against Miami’s zone, but that was how Miami looked in November and December. The HEAT as constructed today, with so much length to throw up top, are a different test. But Davis’ ability to catch the ball anywhere on the floor and thrive over the top, making half of his many attempts in mid-range, has always made zone an inconsistent solution to a complex problem.

Coupled with Davis and James’ ability to post any overloaded defense, a weapon the HEAT once comfortably used against Tom Thibodeau’s strong-side heavy Bulls, and the zone may not have the same effect it did against Boston.

If it sounds like this is all going to be difficult, that’s because it will. The challenges only get tougher, and the combination of James and Davis is as tough as they come. If the Lakers also happened to be a truly elite shooting team, like Miami is, then they might be an unstoppable juggernaut. But they aren’t, so they aren’t. The HEAT have the personnel and the coaching to figure this out. There shouldn’t be any doubts left about what they can execute, and as much top-end talent as the Lakers have they’re still susceptible to stringing together stagnant offensive possessions, even at the end of games.

Miami can get stops, but it’ll be about more than any single scheme or matchup. It’ll be about meeting the task at hand, which they’ve done again and again. How many other teams do you want building your furniture?

“We’re going to have to be damn near perfect to beat the Lakers,” Butler said. “We’re capable of it.”

HEAT Ball

Of the teams Miami has faced in the playoffs, all of which defended at a good-to-great level and all of which Miami has found a way to score efficiently against, the Lakers are the most flexible. Like Milwaukee, Frank Vogel’s group can play big with multiple center-sized players on the floor dropping back into the paint on pick-and-roll. Like Boston, the Lakers can play smaller, switch-heavy lineups that flatten you out and try to induce as much one-on-one play as possible. And as maybe only they can do it, the Lakers can do a little bit of both at the same time.

Let’s start with the Milwaukee approach. Outside of what became an outlier Game 1, the HEAT never again crossed the 40-point threshold for points in the paint. Games 2-5, even with Antetokounmpo injured for most of the final two, were largely played on the Bucks’ terms as far as them keeping the ball out of the middle of the floor and conceding a few threes in the process. Miami was more than happy to meet those terms with their full complement of shooters, taking every shooting pocket presented by those drop-back Milwaukee bigs as they made 37.2 percent of their threes on over 40 attempts per game. Miami got to the foul line plenty and created some much-needed relief points by forcing Milwaukee turnovers, but in a general sense the HEAT were able to score because they were uniquely suited to score on a defense that never really figured out how to adjust.

Boston was a change of pace as much as following up a romantic comedy with a horror movie would be – though that line might get a little blurry depending on who you ask – but Miami proved equally capable on that front posting an offensive rating (114.2 per 100) that would have been good for second during the regular season. Boston’s switching certainly accomplished its goal of flattening out Miami’s many actions, but each game a different individual took the reins. Butler drove with physicality, Goran Dragic was a nightmare cover, Tyler Herro went off for 37 points when nothing else was working and Bam Adebayo took over a series-clinching Game 6 with a collection of dribble drives directly into the chest of Daniel Theis.

As a quick aside, it’s a testament to Adebayo’s work and development that it would sound insane to travel back to early 2019 and tell a random person, even a HEAT fan, just how offensively dominant, with and without the ball, Adebayo was against the Celtics. They might be more apt to believe Paul Thomas Anderson had cast The Rock in There Will Be Blood: Part II. Sometimes players surpass even the highest expectations and shortest timelines.

“I let my teammates down in Game 5,” Adebayo said. “I just had to realign myself and be who I want to become.”

If you dissect the Lakers’ defense down to its individual parts, there’s plenty of evidence that the HEAT can find ways to score. They’ve shot it over length and they’ve scored against switches. It just gets a little tricky when your opponent can be two things at once, when Davis is the one you have to find a way to attack. The good bet is that the HEAT’s shooting will have to play more than it did against Boston. It can, but the Lakers are no slouch defending the three themselves.

While it’s a part of the game that doesn’t tend to get a lot of coverage, the HEAT’s scoring will often come down to mistakes. Like most James teams, with James being one of the best free-safety defenders in history hunting your passing lanes before the ball has left your hands – as Butler has done so many times in the playoffs – the Lakers can turn you over and take advantage. Outside of a couple key stretches against Boston, Miami has done well limiting its turnovers. That has to continue.

The flip side of the Lakers having a lot of defensive options is that they have to choose from all those options to fit the moment. Few offenses are better at exploiting a defense caught thinking too little or too much than the HEAT. Every switch that isn’t clean leads to Adebayo slipping his way into space. Every pick-and-roll coverage on the sideline that doesn’t contain the ball means Dragic is powering his way into the paint. If your weakside help isn’t precise, then lobs and kickout passes are coming. It might not come quite as easy as James firing a cross-court pass to a shooter, but Miami isn’t any stranger to work. The HEAT are going to challenge the Lakers’ connectivity, maybe even more so than the two-man game of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic just did, and loose wires get attacked.

Late Game

Of everything that has changed about the HEAT during the bubble, from lineup changes to player development, maybe the most impressive has been their performance late in games. All the changes and adjustments are factors, but Miami was No. 24 in Clutch Net Rating (-14.0 per 100) and No. 28 in fourth-quarter (-5.8 per 100) Net Rating during the regular season. In the playoffs, that’s flipped to No. 2 and No. 1, respectively. Over the last two rounds against very good teams, the HEAT are 8-2 in the clutch. When everything is on the line there isn’t much the HEAT haven’t done right on either end of the floor, and that’s what has Miami in the Finals.

Clutch can be a fickle thing. Nobody would doubt Miami’s level of composure and poise at this point, but even if you’re doing all the right things there’s no guarantee the ball is going to bounce your way. Over the past two rounds, the HEAT are 13-of-32 from three in clutch minutes (40.6 percent) while their opponents are a staggering 3-of-21 (14.3 percent). That can change or stay the same, nobody knows, but it’s a reason this preview is being written today. The good news is that the HEAT by and large have been getting the looks they want in those situations.

The same can’t be quite said of the Lakers down the stretch, Davis game-winners aside. The Lakers are scoring just 102.5 points per 100 in fourth quarters during the postseason, and 89.5 per 100 in clutch minutes. They’re still 5-2 in those close games on the strength of defense, but there’s no question their offense has slowed a bit when the game gets into a half-court crawl. This is where the argument comes back to, ‘But yeah, LeBron’ and the only response to that is, ‘Fair’.

For Miami to win the title there’s little question they’ll have to win a few more tight ones. They’re coming into this series with nearly a clean sheet in that regard, ‘But yeah, LeBron’.

“If you want to win, you’re going to have to go through a LeBron James-led team,” Butler said. “At the end of the day, that’s what it normally comes down to.”

That’ll make for more anxious nights in Miami, where everyone has their game-watching rituals hammered out with fine print, but the good times always have to roll over some rocks along the way.

Just remember that that rock didn’t start rolling itself. It takes a village to roll it to the top so it can come down the other side. Some years may look more Sisyphean than others, but the HEAT are always pushing.

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