Los Angeles Lakers’ compelling aspects vs. Miami Heat – NBA Finals preview

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The Los Angeles Lakers have made it back to the NBA Finals for a league-record 32nd time in franchise history.

It took the Los Angeles Lakers only 15 games to dispatch Portland, Houston and Denver as they compiled a sterling 12-3 win-loss record.

For the first time ever, the Lakers’ Finals opponent will be the Miami Heat, for whom LeBron James played for from 2010 through 2014. Miami made it to the Finals each season and captured titles in 2012 and 2013.

Don’t be misled by the Heat’s fifth-place finish this season in the Eastern Conference where they went 44-29, significantly worse than the Lakers’ 52-19. Miami is peaking at the right time, taking just 15 games to defeat Indiana, Milwaukee (the team with the best record in the NBA) and Boston.

This year’s Finals should be competitive. Here are some of the most compelling aspects

1. Miami’s Defense against the Lakers offense

The series will match this year’s third-leading postseason offense, the Lakers at 113.9 points per game, against the fifth-best defense, the Heat, which holds opponents to 107.2. Miami’s D is sandwiched behind Houston and Denver, which rank fourth and sixth respectively.

No team in the league can stop the Lakers’ dynamic duo of James and Anthony Davis. Through 15 games, AD has averaged 29 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists while shooting 57% from the field and 37% on three-pointers. LeBron’s respective numbers are 27-10-9, 55% and 35%.

But Miami appears to be as able as any team to match-up with the Lakers stars. Three players will likely be assigned to guard the 6-9, 250 James: 6-6, 235 Jae Crowder, 6-7, 230 Jimmy Butler, and familiar foe 6-6, 215 Andre Iguodala, the former Warrior who frequently faced off against LeBron in four consecutive Finals against the Cavaliers.

Meanwhile, at least some of the time 6-9 Bam Adebayo, who was voted to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team, will line up against 6-10 Davis.

But the Heat also frequently employs a very effective 2-3 zone. At the top of the zone, they often use two of their taller players to exert maximum pressure on opposing ballhandlers, frequently leading to turnovers and easy baskets for Miami.

All of this means that the Lakers might have to work harder than usual to run their offense. It might also take them time to adjust. The good news for the Lakers is that they can entrust veteran players like LeBron and Rajon Rondo to run the offense against the Miami zone. That duo, along with Alex Caruso, should have as much if not more success than any other team in handling the defensive pressure.

Miami will have no answer if AD continues to shoot well from the outside. His length and shooting touch make him unstoppable at times, as the Blazers, Rockets and Nuggets will all attest. Simply put, Davis is one of the greatest inside/outside scoring threats in NBA history.

AD’s numbers in his first full post-season are comparable to the best championship playoff seasons by many of the greatest big men ever: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and even Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

Another key to the Lakers’ offense is the accuracy of their three-point shooters. Most important will likely be starters Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green, but also contributions behind the arc from Davis, James, Rondo, Caruso, Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris will make a big difference.

The Lakers’ need for a consistent third scorer is widely discussed. But it seems as if a different player steps up each game to provide ample support for their Big Two. Kuzma, KCP, Green, Rondo, Howard, Morris and Caruso have all tallied double-figure scoring games. Collectively, they contribute 57 PPG, almost exactly half the team’s total points.

Because Miami often plays Adebayo with four smaller players, they are susceptible on their defensive boards, especially when they’re in a zone. The Lakers might be able to cash in with offensive put-backs off missed shots.

2. Lakers defense against the Heat’s offense

After having to defend against Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in round one, James Harden and Russell Westbrook in the second round, and Jamal Murray in the conference finals, LA’s guards might sigh with relief because the Heat has no player of that scoring caliber in their backcourt.

But attention must to paid to rookie Tyler Herro, who has become a go-to guy in the playoffs, especially late in the fourth quarter, and had a monster game 4 against Boston, scoring 37 points. Still, the Lakers’ defense has been stifling and has worn out opposing guards.

Like Houston, Miami relies heavily on three-point baskets, taking 37 long-distance attempts per game. But their shooting percentage of 35.7% behind the arc isn’t anything special. In fact, it is nearly identical to the Lakers 35.5%.

However, the Heat’s four leading shooters all connect at a higher clip: Duncan Robinson is hitting 40%, Herro is at 38%, Butler 37% (after shooting just 24% in the regular season) and veteran Goran Dragic 36%.

Robinson and Jae Crowder have both slipped from their regular season percentages of 45% each, but rookie Herro has stepped up his game. And the wily Dragic will sometimes emulate Manu Ginobili by scoring in many different manners en route to a big game.

Overall, the Heat features a balanced scoring attack. Six players average double-figure points in the playoffs led by Dragic and Butler with about 21 PPG each.

LA’s defense has been a team strength throughout the playoffs and is a key reason why they’ve advanced to the Finals. Coach Frank Vogel has taken full advantage of their roster flexibility. He can opt to play one of the league’s tallest teams or switch to a very effective small-ball five.

Miami moves the ball around as well as any team does. The Lakers will have to be ready to keep defenders flowing towards third and even fourth options. But their defensive intensity in the playoffs so far indicates that they are capable of keeping the Heat offense off-stride.

3. Other Factors

Both coaches, Miami’s Eric Spoelstra and LA’s Vogel, have made critical adjustments in the postseason.

For the Heat, 7-0 Meyers Leonard was the starting center for 49 games before he badly sprained an ankle. Even though he is now fully recovered, Spoelstra has only played him in one playoff game so far.

Miami might need his size or that of 6-11 Kelly Olynyk to defend against the Lakers big front line, especially when Davis is at power forward alongside either Howard or JaVale McGee. Offensively, both Leonard and Olynyk shot over 40% from beyond the arc this season.

Similarly, rookie Kendrick Nunn started 67 games in the backcourt and averaged 15 PPG in the regular season. But he’s been essentially a non-factor in the only postseason, playing only 9 games, all in a reserve role. His minutes have been reduced from 29 to 12 and his scoring average has dwindled down to just 3 per game.

Vogel has expertly moved his pieces around the chessboard, especially on the defensive end. To combat the Rockets’ small-ball offense, he benched both JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard.

Howard was more effective against Nikola Jokic, so he moved into the starting lineup against Denver and played more minutes. And Vogel made the necessary defensive adjustments on the perimeter to slow down three high-powered offenses.

The two teams played each other twice this season, way back in November and December. Although the Lakers swept the series, those games were played so long ago that they have little or no relevance to the Finals.

Conclusion and Prediction

As they proved by knocking off top-seeded Milwaukee and red-hot Boston, Miami is playing extremely well right now and is brimming with confidence. But since nobody expected them to get this far, it remains to be seen whether they’ll be happy enough just to make the Finals.

The Lakers’ foes were no pushovers either. Portland was one of the best teams in the bubble during the qualification games. Notables such as Charles Barkley and Colin Cowherd both picked the Blazers to beat LA. Others got on the Portland bandwagon after they won game one.

Houston was demonstrating its mastery of small ball, and when they beat the Lakers in game one of the second round, many thought an upset was in the works… until LA swept the next four games.

Denver was basking in the glory of completing back-to-back comebacks to win their first two rounds after being down 3-1 to both Utah and the supposedly mighty Clippers. At least two Sports Illustrated writers picked the Nuggets to also defeat the Lakers.

The Lakers have shown that they are a team on a mission. To a man, while they celebrated winning the Western Conference playoffs, they all said it wasn’t enough. Nothing short of capturing the NBA title will satisfy the likes of LeBron, AD and their teammates.

It appears likely that they will achieve their goal against a very talented Heat team. If James and Davis stay healthy, they will not be denied from winning the 17th title in franchise history, tying the Celtics for the most in league history.

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The Lakers have beaten three very good teams by 4-1 margins. Expect them to do it one more time.

Lakers over Miami in 5 games