Lakers vs. Heat, Finals Game 1: Three Things to Know (9/30/20)
For the 32nd time in NBA history, the Lakers advanced to the Finals, where they’ll face the Miami Heat. L.A. cruised through the Western Conference with three consecutive 4-1 series wins towards a 12-3 record that Miami matched in the East. Below are three things to know ahead of Wednesday’s Game 1 tipoff:
LEBRON’S FINALS LEGACY
Nine trips to the NBA Finals … in 10 years? Huh?
With a masterful 38-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist Game 5 against Denver in the Western Conference Finals, LeBron James clinched a spot in the Finals, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with his 10th appearance. That trails only Bill Russell (12) and Sam Jones (11) from their Celtics days, when there were between eight and 12 teams for their entire runs through the late 1950’s and 1960’s.
He also secured his 15th win in his last 16 closeout games, which he attributes to an ability to match the desperation of the team that’s trailing.
LeBron, who was a unanimous All-NBA First Team selection and runner up in the 2019-20 MVP voting that, surely, many folks in Los Angeles in particular think coulda/shoulda/woulda gone his way, was terrific from the opening tip of the season nearly one year ago.
“I feel like he has had a chip on his shoulder all year long,” said Frank Vogel after Game 5. “Everybody has doubters, and to be in the Eastern Conference and get there as much as he had, now to come over to the Western Conference, I think is just an enourmous accomplishment to do it with a third team. So much respect for him and love for him.
“For what he’s meant to me, he has empowered this whole group just buying into the plan that we had, with how we wanted to play this year, and getting the whole group to buy in. Obviously a great part of why we’ve had this success, understanding that the job is not done.”
Indeed, what LeBron really plays for is titles.
“It’s been like this for a very long time” said Miami All-Star Jimmy Butler, who will be guarding LeBron for at least portions of the Finals. “If you want to win, you’ll have to go through a LeBron James-led team … Obviously you can’t just focus on him because he has so many really good players around him, but you’re going to get the same test over and over again until you pass, and that test is LeBron James.”
LeBron, of course, has a deep connection to Miami, where he won his first two titles in 2012 and 2013, under the legend Pat Riley and coach Eric Spoelstra, who continue run the Heat. But that’s not really on his mind as he approaches Game 1.”
“Absolutely not,” he said before Tuesday’s practice when asked if it would mean any more to beat Miami. “There is no extra meaning … it’s (hard enough to get there). If you’re able to be victorious out of the Finals, it doesn’t matter who it’s against."
LAKERS SIZE AND ATHLETICISM
No matter what lineup Frank Vogel went with in the Western Conference playoffs, his team was always big, always long, and always athletic. The Lakers are huge, yet also fast, and will once again have physical advantages against a Miami team that’s gone small, if not quite as small as Houston due to Bam Adebayo’s relative size to PJ Tucker.
Coach Spo has opted to start Bam at the 5, leaving 7’0’’ Meyers Leonard out of the rotation, and at 6’9’’ Bam is Miami’s tallest player. He’s flanked by 6’6’’ Jae Crowder, 6’7’’ Jimmy Butler, 6’7’’ Duncan Robinson and 6’3’’ Goran Dragic.
The Lakers counter with either JaVale McGee (7’0’’) or Dwight Howard (6’10’’) alongside Anthony Davis (6’10’’), LeBron James (6’9’’), Danny Green (6’6’’) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (6’5’’), while Markieff Morris (6’8’’) has also started in “small” lineups.
It’s not so much the raw height that matters, however. The key for L.A. has been how explosive they are at the rim on both sides of the court. Defensively, McGee, Davis, Howard and LeBron can all protect the paint as shot blockers that know how to use verticality. Offensively, Howard and McGee are constant lob threats, while Davis and LeBron have lived in their opponent’s paint all postseason (and really, for their entire careers).
LeBron leads the playoffs in buckets in the restricted area (87) on the 2nd-best percentage (75.7%).— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) September 29, 2020
Anthony Davis leads the playoffs in percentage in the restricted area (78.8%) with the 3rd-most buckets (63).
Simply monstrous at the rim. pic.twitter.com/BF6YnoXElb
In two games against Miami in the regular season, Davis was a particular problem. He went for 33 points on 11 of 20 shooting with 10 boards and three blocks in a 113-110 Dec. 13 win at Miami, and 26 points on 11 of 17 shooting with eight boards, seven assists, three blocks and two steals in a 95-80 win on Nov. 8 in L.A.
But this Heat team is different, with Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder replacing Meyers Leonard and Kendrick Nunn in the rotation, and young players Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson taking a leap. The Lakers do have a great deal of respect for Miami, as Vogel stated.
“They’re extremely well coached,” he said. “They got a lot of ways that they can beat you. To me, they have three All-Star level players in Butler, Bam and I’ve always thought Goran Dragic, when healthy, is an All-Star level player. Obviously a Hall-of-Fame addition in Andre Iguodala. They have shooting, they have toughness … there’s no surprise that they’ve had such a successful postseason run. We’re going to have to be at our best to beat them.”
L.A.’s ability to control the paint on both ends of the floor has been pivotal to their ability to beat teams throughout the season, and should once again be key in this matchup with Miami.
DEFENDING AND SHOOTING THE THREE
While protecting the rim remains the highest priority for Frank Vogel’s defense, he’s also gotten the players to buy into conceding little from the 3-point line.
In the regular season, Houston (16.9), Denver (12.3) and Portland (11.6) ranked 1st, 10th and 14th in 3-pointers made. The Lakers held them to a collective average of 11.9 makes per game, to rank third amongst postseason defenses.
Miami ranks 8th in the postseason in threes made with 13.3 per game, two more than L.A.’s 11.3, and 11th in accuracy at 35.7 percent, compared to L.A.’s 35.5 percent. That’s not a big discrepancy, certainly not compared to L.A.’s advantage in points in the paint, where they average 49.6 compared to Miami’s 39.9.
L.A. has active, long perimeter defenders who focus on not giving up clean looks from three, with Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso doing the lion’s share of the chasing around screens, running off the line and closing out. LeBron acknowledged that will be a challenge against a Heat team in constant motion.
“The way they move without the ball,” said LeBron about what stands out about Miami. “Everyone is live … there isn’t one guy you can (ignore). They do a hell of a job moving the ball, passing, cutting.”
Amidst all of that movement, the Lakers will need to be aware of both the rim, and the three, which they’ve been able to do throughout the regular season and the Western Conference playoffs. On Wednesday, the Heat will be the latest offense to try and find a hole in L.A.’s defense that hasn’t existed to this point.
Meanwhile, Miami will likely try and close up their paint make the Lakers hit jump shots. Thus far, no team has been able to keep L.A. out of the paint, and the Lakers have hit enough shots on the perimeter to force at least a base level of defensive reaction.
Alas … the Finals are here!
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