The NBA Finals starts on Wednesday as Los Angeles takes on Miami is perhaps the most unique championship series in league history. The Lakers are favorited since they have the superstar duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but the Heat have proven themselves through teamwork and fearlessness.
It’s sure to be a competitive series as neither team has a significant advantage over the other. Many are taking the Lakers to win, mostly because of James’ greatness, but you can’t count out a Miami bunch that has repeatedly overcome expectations.
Miami has a good chance, but it’ll take a consistently-superb play from them to overcome the talent gap. Here are five reasons the Heat can upset the Lakers, all of which will factor into the series in one way or another.
5. Bam Adebayo Can Contain Anthony Davis
No one player can stop Davis from getting his points. Sometimes, Davis himself lets teams off the hook by not being aggressive offensively for all four quarters, but he’s slowly improving this part of his game as the playoffs go on.
Whether or not Davis decides to take over games, Adebayo is the best defender Davis has faced all postseason. Adebayo was Second-Team All-Defensive this season after proving to be one of the most versatile centers in basketball, so Davis should have his hands full when Miami is in man-to-man.
Adebayo has the length, strength and athleticism to counteract Davis’ offensive arsenal, but he won’t be able to do it for an entire game. But the Heat play great defense as a whole, so Davis will surely have to navigate through several defensive schemes featuring Adebayo.
Although L.A.’s supporting cast has played better of late, the team’s roster, aside from James and Davis, is far older and worse than Miami’s top-8 players.
The Heat currently have six players averaging double-digit points in the playoffs while the Lakers barely have three. Andre Iguodala and Kelly Olynyk are two bench players who haven’t been scoring much, yet both of them are capable of catching fire from behind the arc or playing well in short bursts.
L.A., on the other hand, has been relying heavily on Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso to assist their superstar duo. These three have played well recently, but you never know how they’ll fare against a defensive-minded team like the Heat. The Lakers will need their top players to be on their A-game at all times, especially if the Heat’s role players keep performing as well as they have throughout the bubble.
3. Three-point Shooting
Miami’s 3-point shooting is one of the biggest reasons the team made it to the Finals. Whether it was Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Jae Crowder or even Iguodala in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the team seems to have at least one hot-hand every night.
L.A. was above average at defending the 3-point line in the regular season — they ranked ninth in opponent triples made per game and seventh in opponent 3-point percentage, according to basketball-reference — but they struggled to limit open looks at times against Portland, Houston and Denver. Most of the Lakers’ perimeter defenders are slower, and against a young team like Miami with multiple shooters on the floor at all times, L.A. may have trouble rotating to stop so many weapons.
Goran Dragic, in particular, has been stellar throughout the playoffs both shooting the ball and penetrating the middle of defenses. The Lakers don’t have a go-to option to stop him, so he may once again average over 20 points per game in the series.
2. Zone Defense
Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra has befuddled both the Bucks and Celtics with spurts of zone defense in these playoffs. His team has implemented this tactic arguably better than any team in recent NBA history, and it’s a big reason why they’ve had so much success.
The Heat run it so effectively because they have several interchangeable defenders whom Spoelstra can plug-and-play in different parts of the zone. He can have his bigs play up or down because Adebayo is so athletic, which makes it significantly harder to score against.
A more important factor of their zone defense is that it prevents matchup-hunting. James historically loves to isolate a team’s weakest link by drawing a switch in a pick-and-roll, and this normally forces a poor defender like Robinson out of the game. But in Miami’s zone, the opponent plays all five defenders at once at all times, so James and Davis won’t be able to exploit mismatches as easily.
Coaching is the biggest factor in this series aside from if James and Davis are simply too good to stop. Almost everyone who follows or works within the NBA has gained a tremendous amount of respect for Spoelstra in recent years. He almost always gets the best out of his players and consistently out-coaches even the league’s top minds.
Frank Vogel is an experienced coach and has done a solid job all year handling L.A.’s many egos and roster changes, but he isn’t nearly the leader or X’s-and-O’s tactician that Spoelstra is. It’s hard to say if Vogel elevates the play of his role players, and in the team’s two Game 1 losses this postseason, he’s shown an inability to make in-game adjustments at times.
The Lakers, however, have done a good job of altering their gameplans from game-to-game. But Spoelstra has battled against Brad Stevens and Mike Budenholzer and come out the victor, and Vogel doesn’t present the same challenge.
If nothing else, Spoelstra coached James for four years, so he may have a few tricks up his sleeve to counter things he knows James likes to do.