The NBA Finals are finally here. Lakers vs. Heat. I’ve already spilled a lot of words on this matchup. Things I’ll be watching for and questions I have, ideas shared with and bounced off of one the best thinkers about the game I’m lucky enough to know. Humbly, I think those words are worth your time, so please check them out if you can.
I still have more, though. Particularly about this all important game 1.
Let’s jump right in because, while game 1 will provide us a bunch of answers and insight into the framework of this series moving forward, there’s things that I think will be pretty important for the Lakers when trying to win tonight.
First, the Lakers need to continue to find ways to get out in transition. The Heat were excellent in containing Giannis in the 2nd round by building a wall in the open court. They’ll surely try to do the same with LeBron. But the Lakers aren’t a great transition team soley because of James. AD, Rondo, Caruso, KCP, Kuzma, Green, Dwight, and JaVale all contribute to the team’s transition games in their own way. The Lakers, as a team, must push the pace — if not to get a clean transition basket, then to get into early offense or to simply draw some fouls.
The Heat are surely going to scheme to try to stop this off live rebounds, sending more players back on misses and, potentially, abandoning the chase for offensive rebounds. Still, though, with their spacing principles and propensity to shoot jumpers, the Lakers will have their chances. They must show a commitment to running. They could also help themselves even more by forcing some turnovers via steals and blocks and race the other way.
Second, Spoelstra’s familiarity with LeBron and understanding of Davis’ potent scoring potential lead me to believe he’s going to throw as many defenders at them via clogged lanes and double teams as he can, without comprimising the integrity of his halfcourt defense. I’m not sure if he’ll double AD when Bam is on him, but if it’s Crowder (to start the game) or if there’s a switch, I do think they’ll try to get the ball out of AD’s hands.
If that’s the case, AD will need to be smart with his passes, but also test the limits of those doubles by back dribbling/escaping out of them to see how long they stick with him. If those doubles disintegrate after he looks like he’s no longer a threat, he can keep his dribble alive and then attack right away vs. the mismatch that remains. AD did a lot of this vs. the Rockets and to good success, so this is a tool in his bag that I hope he’ll use should things play out that way.
In terms of LeBron, the Lakers will need to find ways to spring him in the halfcourt so he can drive to the paint. Whether that’s setting higher ball screens, using stagger screens, having him drive to the side with only a single player in the strong side corner, using guards instead of bigs to set the pick, or varying the spots on the floor where the screen is set. Getting Bron downhill off the dribble leads to good things and is a centerpiece of the Lakers halfcourt attack offensively.
Moving to personnel and deployment, there’s still a bunch of unanswered questions I have about lineups the Lakers will use and who will prove capable of playing a steady role vs. this specific Heat team. My sense is that Vogel will again go back to JaVale starting to see if his length and athleticism can bother some, while switching all over the floor in an attempt to gum up the Heat’s motion/screen/hand-off based actions.1I get that JaVale isn’t the team’s best center. He’s not even their 2nd best. But, Vogel, I think likes to keep things stable until things shift enough where it’s proven that approach isn’t as successful as he’d like. JaVale, all season, has been the most fungible starter — Vogel has pulled him from the lineup at halftime multiple times and he’s been the player swapped out entirely when any starting lineup change occurs. With that, I think he’ll again start and Vogel will play it by ear.
If that is the case, I’ll be very interested to see how JaVale holds up under the pressure to make decisions and use instincts when reading how a play is unfolding. Few teams test you as frequently as the Heat in this regard and this has not been one of JaVale’s strengths as a defender. Things could go sideways on him quickly, so if Vogel does go in that direction, he needs to be ready to pivot.
Speaking of the big man rotation, a matchup to watch is which Lakers big plays when Olynyk is in the game. I expect him to see some run, particulary when Spoelstra can protect him defensively (in man-to-man when Bron sits, in zone when Bron is in the game). But on the other end of the floor, Olynyk is the type of floor spacing big that the Lakers have had issues defending when they play in their base man defense. Olynyk will pick-and-pop and vs. a drop coverage like the Lakers run (or in ICE coverage on sideline ball screens) that’s the shot that’s open. Recovering to him and making him play off the dribble rather than as a stationary shooter is important and one of those “games within the game” that bears watching.
Lastly, I’ve no clue if the normal Finals feeling will be there for both of these teams when that opening tip goes up. No clue if the ramped up pressure and anxiousness will resonate in an environment with no fans and fewer media dissecting everything. No clue if the advantage of experience — an advantage the Lakers have in abundance in comparison to the Heat — will matter in any way. If that stuff is there in any way, I do think the Lakers have an upper hand that can help them this game — at least early on until everyone settles in.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on ABC.