2020 NBA Finals | Lakers vs. Heat

4 factors that could help Heat upset Lakers

Miami enters The Finals as the underdog to LeBron James and L.A.

ORLANDO, Fla. — In the battle between the blue blood program and the blue chip program, someone has to play the role of underdog.

The Los Angeles Lakers, chasing championship banner No. 17 and heavily favored in most circles outside of South Florida, don’t mind the blue-blood distinction.

And no one relishes the long-shot tag more than the Miami Heat, given their roster loaded with underrated players who have scrapped and clawed their way up the ranks in this bizarre, pandemic-influenced season.

The Lakers celebrated their first trip to The Finals since 2010 with a clear message: Theres more business to be done.

The Heat disseminated a similar refrain to their group after clinching their first trip here since 2014: We’re not done yet.

But only one of them will leave with the title in what would be an exclamation point to a 2019-20 season filled with moments and obstacles no one could foresee.

The No. 5-seed Heat vanquished three higher seeds — No. 4 Indiana in the first round, No. 1 Milwaukee in the conference semifinals and No. 3 Boston in the conference finals — to get here.

And they come with a warning label.

“They’re super physical, super tough, very, very savvy,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I think they’re the best team in the East and deserve to be representing the East in the way that they have played.”

An upset of the top-seed from the Western Conference is the logical next step. And with no home court advantage to lean on … anything is possible! (In the Kevin Garnett voice …)

Here are four keys to the Heat springing that upset:

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1. Embrace the 2-3 zone

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra perfectly deployed a 2-3 zone defense against Boston. The wrinkle worked wonders in their Game 2 win and the threat of it the remainder of the series was invaluable.

It’s no gimmick. Spoelstra had no choice but to add the zone to their defensive playbook so All-Star center Bam Adebayo would stay out of harm’s way. The zone lets him set the Heat’s defensive parameters while also protecting the paint.

The bubble environment has allowed for a different sort of scouting experience, with every team getting a real-time look at the in-game adjustments in the same location. The element of surprise, then, won’t be on the Heat’s side.

“We feel good about attacking whatever defense they throw out there,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We’re familiar with the different looks they like to show and we have a plan on how to attach each of them. At that point it’s just about trusting your guys and making sure we’re in the right spots. And attack the way the game plan suggests.”

The Celtics had the same plan.

They couldn’t beat the Heat consistently attacking or trying to shoot them out of their zone. And they were a significantly better 3-point shooting team than the Lakers (35.5% on 3-pointers in the playoffs).

Adebayo’s rim protection is compromised when the Heat are switching all over the place, as Boston exploited at times during the conference finals. Spoelstra countered by mixing in some zone stretches that worked to perfection.

Throw bodies at LeBron

Kawhi Leonard (2014) and Andre Iguodala (2015) won Finals MVPs based largely on their ability to limit the effectiveness of LeBron James. But it wasn’t a one-man job then and it isn’t now.

The Heat have an assortment of bodies to throw at LeBron, a challenge Spoelstra understands as well or better than any NBA coach after serving as James’ coach during his four seasons with the Heat (2010-14).

That said, Iguodala’s work on James during their first Finals matchup is a masterclass on how to agitate, frustrate and contain a force like James.

“He’s a historically good perimeter defender, that’s why he’s going to go to the Hall of Fame,” Vogel said of Iguodala. “He’s got great length, great hands, great feet … toughness. He’s just one of those types of defenders. There’s a reason these guys are in the NBA Finals, because they have a lot of defensive firepower. And Andre fits in that bucket.”

Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder have also had to match up with LeBron in recent playoffs, giving Spoelstra all sorts of options. Butler will no doubt get his fair share of time guarding LeBron and respects the challenge.

“The main key, and it’s been like this for a very long time, if you want to win, you’re going to have to go through a LeBron James-led team,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s what it normally comes down to. … Obviously you can’t focus in on [just] 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.”

Turn Adebayo loose

Celtics point guard Kemba Walker said it best after Adebayo destroyed the Celtics in Game 6: “Bam’s a star. And he played like it.”

For Spoelstra to turn Adebayo loose on the Lakers the way he did against the Celtics, someone will have to protect the heart and soul of this Heat team from bruisers like Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee and Markieff Morris.

They are a significant step up in competition from Boston’s Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter.

“Yeah, he’s earned it,” Spoelstra said. “That’s what all the great players have to go through, different schemes, different matchups, game plans against you. They know how important he is, and like I said before, he’s an elite competitor, and he’s as impactful as anyone in this association.”

Vogel agreed.

“Hes is not becoming (a star). Hes already there. Hes terrific,” Vogel said. “He really fits the modern NBA, in terms of playing the center position, with all that he can do. … He can really do it all, protects the rim, defensively. He can switch out and does a lot of things, and is a huge reason for their success this year.”

We could end up seeing Bam and Anthony Davis matched up as small-ball centers in this series (if both coaches decide to go that way).

Dragic, Herro and Robinson go crazy

The underdog routine has worked fine to this point.

But the Heat need the trio of Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson to elevate their game to meet the magnitude of the moment.

Dragic, not Butler or Adebayo, leads the Heat in playoff scoring (20.9 ppg).

We’ve already seen what Herro can do when his confidence is soaring and he starts cooking from deep (see his nuclear Game 4 effort vs. Boston).

“I think I came into the league more as like a catch-and-shoot guy and that’s what I’m labeled as, but as you can see, I can put the ball on the floor,” Herro said. “I can make plays for others. I can get my own shot off the dribble, and that’s what I did my whole life before Kentucky and before the NBA. I grew up with the ball in my hands and making plays and making tough shots. I feel like that’s my game.”

And Robinson, who is shooting 40% on 3-pointers, is due for one of those lights-out performances great shooters tend to have at least once in a series.

There’s a reason the Lakers aren’t buying this underdog narrative. The Heat’s profile outside of the bubble is one thing. Their reality is something different inside this diorama.

“They have three All-Star players in Butler, Bam and, Ive always felt that when healthy, Goran Dragic is an All-Star-level player,” Vogel said. “They have shooting. They have toughness. And like I said, they are extremely well-coached. So it’s no surprise theyve had such a successful postseason run.”

Butler and the Heat have backed up his business trip talk and believe they will emerge on top in one of the most tumultuous seasons in NBA history. He reflected on as much a year to the day since his introductory news conference to announce that he was “coming home” to Miami.

“A lot of ups and downs. Obviously, everything that’s happened in 2020,” he said. “But from a basketball standpoint, [it] couldn’t be better. You talk about where we are right now going into The Finals, that’s what I want. We talked about it and put that out there in the world, and I think all that positive energy we put out, it came back to us. We believed when not too many did, but that’s okay. We’re going to keep believing and get these next four.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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