To be quite honest, if you’d asked me a year ago (when this season actually started — what a year it’s been!) whether I thought I’d be writing an NBA Finals preview for the Lakers, the farthest I’d go in a response was that I was “hopeful”.
The Lakers had a very good team on paper and were anchored by two elite players, but their guard depth and playmaking concerned me. I was also not sure how good they would be on defense, even after acquiring AD. The landscape in the West would be so frought with landmines and other strong teams, being confident about this team reaching the Finals would seem even too optimistic for me.
Yet, 12 months later, here they are. The Lakers are in the NBA Finals and are facing off against an even more longshot opponent to start this season, the Heat. But, both teams have changed in those 12 months; both teams have gotten so much better. They’ve shifted their rotations, made some roster moves, and, maybe most importantly, have coalesced as groups who play for each other and embraced identities that has pushed them towards the best version of themselves.
These are two wonderful teams and it’s fitting, after both rampaging through their respective conferences with identical 12-3 playoff records, that they’re now going to square off for the NBA championship.
It’s important to reiterate now, before we begin to analyze the details of this matchup, that this is not the same Heat team the Lakers faced during the regular season. The Lakers beat those Heat teams twice, sweeping the regular season series. Miami, with the personnel they had, weren’t able to slow down Bron nor AD and even though they had success vs. the Lakers bench, it wasn’t enough. I bring this up because I think the Heat are much better prepared to deal with the Lakers now and that this series is almost certain to be the most competitive the Lakers have faced the entire playoffs.
So, let’s talk about the current version of Miami. The Heat, like the Lakers, are a two star team with one on the wing and one a big. Jimmy Bulter and Bam Adebayo were both All-Stars this year and both have been excellent in the playoffs.
Let’s start with Jimmy, though. At this point, I don’t think I need to break down Butler’s individual game in paintstaking detail, but he’s the definition of a “power” wing. He prefers to drive to the basket over shooting the long jumper. He’s not a prolific 3 point shooter and does not rely on that shot as a key component of his game, but he will take it, particularly when looking to be aggressive as a scorer. He’s a load to handle on drives and will capably post up in order to get into the mid-range where he’ll score with more ease. He’s also a wonderful screen setter and cutter, where he leverages his physicality to open up space for himself and teammates.
Jimmy is also an absolute monster defensively, in the mold of a Kawhi Leonard. He has great instincts, strong and quick hands, and uses his sturdy frame to deny offensive players position in the post or on drives. Because of his strength, he can be difficult to screen, but is also comfortable switching because he can defend up or down a position. Most important to his defensive success, though, is that competitive as hell and does not mind taking on the challenge of defending the other team’s best wing player or making extra efforts to secure a stop.
Bam’s arrival as a more household name has come this season, but anyone who has watched him intently over the years knew this level of play was in him. He’s quite the unique talent as a big, bringing quickness, power, length, defensive IQ and tenacity, and offensive skill + feel all in a single player. In a way — and this may sound like hyperbole — he’s like an amlagamation of both AD and Jokic, only without the 3-point range on his jumper (or the role as a #1 offensive option — which is important, I know).
Like AD, he’s a versatile defender who can guard all 5 positions on the floor as either a primary assignment or on a switch. He has great defensive instincts and is a great help defender. Offensively, he’s an interesting mix of both those bigs from an ask and skill standpoint. He has a good handle and the Heat sometimes rely on him to bring the ball up and initiate the offense. Miami also relies on him as a decision maker with the ball frequently, placing him at the top of the floor while the other players cut and set screens or run dribble hand-off sequences through him where he can use his feel to give or keep the ball while using his frame to set strong picks.
His strength as a screener and good skill level with the ball also makes him a monster in the P&R game because he can play in the short roll as a passer and shooter of little floaters and hooks, pop for the mid-range jumper, or dive all the way to the rim to catch lobs. There’s really very little he can’t do on the basketball floor on either end. If he had a higher usage or was more of a one-on-one player, he’d probably be looked at as one of the 10 or so best players in the game. Alas, that’s not how the Heat play, which brings me to a bigger point about this team…
While I compared the Heat to the Lakers because of their two stars, that’s really where the comparison ends. The Heat are much more of a system team than the Lakers.
Offensively, they cut, screen, and use motion all over the floor to make every player on the floor a threat. They’re a wonderful shooting team — both in volume of 3’s taken and in the number of players who can take them — and rely on the threat of those shots to open up the floor offensively and then have just enough ball-handling and shot creation from the non-Jimmy and Bam players to threaten the paint to both score and create drive and kick chances.
They’re a good passing team, but more important, they’re an unselfish one. They will move the ball onto the open man and hunt good shots vs. a scrambling defense. That said, their individual players also understand their strengths and are not scared to take a big or contested shot themselves when their number is called. They play with confidence and, more than anything else, it’s a major key to their overall success on that side of the ball.
Defensively, even though they’re a capable man-to-man team, they’ve run more zone than any other team in the league this year. This allows them to use their size on the perimeter to their advantage where they can bother smaller guards by contesting shots and closing down passing angles. They love to put bigger players at the top of their zone for just this reason and then can use smaller players and/or their lesser quality defenders on the wings to chase to the corners and funnel the ball into the middle where Bam is lurking.
When they do play man defense, they will switch often and rely on their team-wide toughness to hold up against unfavorable matchups. Sometimes this hurts them, but because they’re also a good help team, they don’t mind sending a double-team at someone and then scrambling around that in an attempt to shut down a possession.
Overall, what stands out when watching this team is that they’re tough, smart, confident, play hard, and are well coached. Throw in the obligatory #heatculture note here if you want, but there’s a reason why it’s a cliche around the league — there’s truth in it.
In giving the Heat the necessary respect, I’ll add here, though, that none of what I wrote above makes them unbeatable. Like every other team, they have flaws and weaknesses to press on. It’s the Lakers job to consistently find those and leverage their own strengths to attack those specific areas. And it’s the Lakers job to cover up their own weaknesses against those same attacks and not be overexposed there either. It’s what they’ve done all playoffs; it’s why they’re in the Finals too.
Offensively, the Lakers can continue to utilize LeBron and AD to hunt advantageous matchups. The Heat will offer a variety of primary defenders who can offer good resistence to both players, with Bam, Crowder, Butler, Iguodala, and even Derrick Jones Jr. being utilized as primarty defenders for one or both of them. What the Lakers can do, however, is try to generate mismatches through switches whenever the Heat play man to man.
In Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Kelly Olynyk the Heat have serval rotation players who, even when they compete defensively, are not good enough to hold up in isolation when trying to defend either Bron or AD. I expect Bron to hunt switches vs. any/all of these players whenever he shares the floor with them and try to put the Heat into situations where they’re forced to double team and scramble. I expect the Lakers to do similar things for AD, both by setting off ball screens for him — particularly in their wide pin-down actions where they start AD in the corner and then use a guard to set a pick for him where he can roll to the paint for a pass from Bron.
I also expect the Lakers to run P&R with Bron and AD, trying to generate lobs for AD or to just generate switches where AD can attack a whoever is defending Bron (particularly Crowder) in those actions when the Heat do switch off. The Lakers also showed vs. the Nuggets that they’d change up their screening angles and the direction in which LeBron attacks screens in order to get him downhill more where he can threaten the rim. These are all variances I expect them to throw against the Heat when they’re in man-to-man defense.
When Miami goes zone, I expect the Lakers to punish them with AD and Bron flashing into the middle of the zone in an attempt to puncture this defense from the inside out. AD can be particularly valuable here because he’s a threat to knock down that mid-range jumper from the FT line area, but is also able to drive to score or throw the lob should defensive big step up early to contest him or defend him tightly. Bron too can do a lot of damage from the nail, especially as a driver and a passer. He’s able to make every pass imaginable from that spot of the floor and, if those passes are covered, he’s one dribble away from the rim where he can either finish or, potentially, draw a foul.
Defensively, the Heat present issues with their shooting and playmaking in similar ways to the Nuggets. While Dragic is not as good as Murray, he’s still very dangerous and playing his best basketball of the season right now. He will look to attack off the dribble to threaten the paint, but will also bomb away from distance if given space. The Lakers can disrupt him in the paint and at the point of attack with size, but they’ll need to be disciplined when they do. They’ll also need to be ready to rotate behind the ball both to help at the rim, but more importantly back to the perimeter to cover up shooters. When he’s hot from the outside, they’ll need to funnel him to size and crowd him in ways that don’t allow him to shake loose. It’s a tough job.
Miami, again like the Nuggets, love to run P&R’s and dribble handoffs, using Bam’s ability as a passer and decision maker to generate advantage. In a way, playing the Nuggets will be useful from a preparation standpoint, even if Bam’s rolling ability presents a different type of threat than anything the Nuggets offered out of thes actions. The Lakers will really need to stick to their principles of “no roller behind” in order to contain the ball handler while also maintaining position to deter the lob to Bam on the roll. I expect AD and Dwight to be the best at this, but JaVale’s size/length/athleticism trio can help too if he can be disciplined enough. That, though, remains to be seen.
In saying all that, the Lakers do have the size and rotating ability to defend the paint and still get out to shooters vs. this team. The Heat will test them more than any other opponent to this point, but the principles are going to be very similar to what they faced in the Rockets and Nuggets series. There’s a level of sharpness that’s needed, but the Lakers have shown they have that level in them.
Lastly, I think the coaching matchup here will be important and one where Vogel is going to need to be at his best. Spoelstra is one of the best coaches in the league. He understands X’s and O’s at a high level, can adjust on the fly, and understands his personnel to find favorable matchups. He’s going to test Vogel in ways other coaches have not yet and while I have confidence in Vogel to also make the right adjustments and tweaks to his lineups and schematically, he’s going to need to be at his best this series.
Like every other series preview, there’s still some open questions I have and items to consider as we head into the series that I think will matter in determining the outcome. Without further ado and in no particular order…
- Can the Lakers solve the math problem? The Heat have taken 5 more 3-pointers per 100 possessions than the Lakers during the playoffs. And though the Heat and Lakers have basically shot the same on those shots, those extra attempts can make a real difference. The Lakers have allowed the 2nd fewest 3-pointers per game during the playoffs and that’s after playing the distance happy Blazers and Rockets. They’ve been excellent at running teams off the line or getting out to the arc and maintaining closeout discipline to get teams to make the extra pass enough times to force them into offensive resents. Limiting the Heat’s 3’s can go a long way towards taking the types of shots they do not want to take. This will be especially true (and important) vs. Robinson and Crowder who live behind the arc.
- Can the Lakers avoid fouling? The Lakers have been one of the worst teams in the league at committing fouls and the Heat have been one of the better teams drawing fouls. If these trends continue, the Heat can get a lot of free points from the line where they’re really good — 82.1% this postseason, 2nd best. The Lakers need to play physically, but they also need to avoid the types of dumb fouls that can put the Heat in the penalty early in a quarter.
- There will be a lot of talk about each team’s role players and how much of an advtangage Miami has. There’s truth here. Herro, Robinson, and Crowder…all these guys can turn a game if they get hot. All are capable of hitting half a dozen 3’s. Herro, in particular, is a wonderful all-court scorer who is good for double-digit points nightly. Add in Nunn, Iguodala, Olynyk, and the Heat are a deep roster with some really capable players. The Lakers, though, have some good role players too and they’ll need to be at their best to keep the battle of the secondary guys competitive. KCP, Kuzma, Danny Green, and Morris are going to have to hit shots. Dwight is going to need to be a menace on the offensive glass, run the floor, and be a lob threat. And then there’s…
- Playoff Rondo? Yeah, the Lakers are going to need you. Can the Lakers win the non-LeBron minutes? If not, can they keep them close? Rondo is the driver behind these groups and while he was better in the Rockets series than vs. the Nuggets, he still made some critical plays over the course of those 5 games to be a net positive. There are no higher stakes games than the Finals and Rondo really has found a way to be at his best during these playoffs. They’ll need one more series like that from him.
- Will the Lakers stay big or go smaller? I honestly do not have a feel for this. There are arguments on both sides and I can see Vogel starting out big like he has each series and then adjusting as needed. If the Lakers do go big, though, their Centers are going to need to be sharp in how they help in the screen game and sharp when it’s their turn to rotate to shooters. This will be true when the team goes small too, of course, but I’ll be interested to see how much Dwight or JaVale play in lineups where Olynyk plays and how this team covers all that space.
- Who does LeBron guard? I’m going to be honest, his most natural matchup this series might just be against Jimmy Butler. I do not like Bron defending shooters as often because he’s such a natural helper that making multiple rotations to the paint and back out to the perimeter to contest shots can be hard over multiple consecutive possessions. I do not want him chasing Duncan Robinson or even having to tag the roller and then get back out to Crowder over and over again. I’d prefer him take Jimmy and play strength on strength. That’s a tiring matchup as well, but playing Jimmy could allow the Lakers to disrupt the Heat offense with more effective switches when they go to that. In terms of the rest of the matchups, assuming JaVale (or Dwight) starts on Bam, I’d have AD on Crowder, Green on Robinson, and KCP on Dragic. I’m not averse to switching those guard matchups either — I do think Danny will struggle staying with Dragic, but KCP is such a good lock and trail defender in the off-ball screen game and that’s a needed quality vs. Robinson.
- Can Kuzma find his game? The Denver series was not Kuz’s best as he struggled defending Porter Jr. and was a bit out of sorts as a spot up shooter. He’s a better player than he showed last round and I’d love for him to have a breakout game or two in the Finals.
- I’ll end this series preview with one last guy: Alex Caruso. Look, man, I can go on and on about AC and what he means to this team. I think he’s going to be an important defensive player against Dragic, Herro, and maybe even Robinson. I think his cutting can help vs. the zone defense and that his overall effort on both ends of the floor can help summon those stretches where the Lakers seize the momentum. Play your game, AC. The Lakers are going to need your best this round.