NBA
October 1, 2020
BY Isaiah Freedman

The One Thing the Lakers and Heat Need to Do to Win the NBA Title

It’s finally here. 

After a season that dragged on longer than anyone could have possibly imagined, we have finally made it to the game’s biggest stage: the NBA Finals. The Miami Heat, who entered the playoffs as the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference, have clawed their way to a battle with LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ Lake Show. It might not be the matchup people were expecting, but it’s filled with juicy subplots — like LeBron vs Pat Riley, Jimmy Butler’s redemption tour, the rise of Tyler Herro and the battle of the Kentucky bigs to name a few.

While all those storylines are spicy, the NBA Finals will come down to one simple thing for each team. Let's dig into each team's key to victory. 

Here's What the Lakers Need to Do Win It All

The Lakers have breezed through the playoffs, winning every series in five games and looking nearly unstoppable. They have the goods to go gargantuan, using big bodies in Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, Markieff Morris, Davis and James to dominate on the boards and in the paint. And thanks to LeBron and AD’s versatile skillsets, the Lakers' small-ball lineups that include the two Klutch clients as the biggest dudes in the Lakers lineup are still physically imposing, and bigger than most normal lineups. Here’s what the team has to do:

The Role Players Must Step Up

It’s not a state-secured secret that role players are often the difference in winning it all or going home emptyhanded. There are plenty of examples like in 2010 when Metta World Peace stepped up to score 20 points and swipe five key steals in a Game 7 win as stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol were struggling against the Boston Celtics. If he didn’t step up, who knows if they'd have won the title. 

For this year's Lakers, there are legitimate questions concerning a reliable third option after their two superstars. Other than LeBron and AD, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was the only player who averaged more than 10 points per game in the Denver series. Just three players (Morris, KCP and Rajon Rondo) shot above 33% from deep against the Nuggets, which is probably not going to cut it against a Miami team that employs Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro, as well as a host of long-range snipers.

Looking at the undisputed top four players in the series — that'd be LeBron, AD, Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler — the Heat clearly have the best rotation players. Goran Dragic, Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala, Robinson and Herro are all playing fantastic playing off the ball. The same can’t be said about the Lakers, whose role players tend to get cold from deep and don't have the ability to attack a defense the same way Dragic and Herro can.

For Los Angeles, they need to hope KCP, Danny Green, Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma can shoulder most of the wing minutes and guard some of Miami’s off-the-dribble studs, while also contributing enough on offense. There is also Playoff Rondo, who has been performing at usual Playoff Rondo standards. He’s dishing 14.6 assists per 100 possessions, and the Lakers are +11 with Rondo on the court. Other than James, the Lakers are playing their best defense, holding opponents to 106 points per 100 possessions, while Rondo is on the court. He shot 45% from deep against the Nuggets in the last series and provided the Lakers exactly what they needed while LeBron was on the bench: a reliable facilitator.

For the Lakers to pull this off, superhuman efforts from their dynamic duo might not be quite enough. They’re going to need their 2020 version of Metta World Peace to elevate his game.

What The Heat Need To Do To Win A Ring

Miami is the clear underdog. The Lakers have a better record and better stars, but that’s not everything. While Coach Frank Vogel has been excellent all playoffs, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has been on another level. His substitutions and in-game adjustments have all worked wonders. His players trust him, and he consistently puts his players in the best position to succeed. He might be the league’s best coach, and he’s going to need to pull out all the stops. Miami might not be the favorite, but they’ve thrived as underdogs through the playoffs. Here’s how they can secure their fourth ring in the last 15 years:

Stay in the Zone

Over the course of the playoffs, Miami has mastered the art of the zone. They led the league this season with an 11.6% zone usage, and have led the playoffs as well, using zone on 177 total possessions, mainly against Boston, per Synergy Sports.

Not only has the zone worked against a worthy opponent in Boston, but there are also some signs it will negatively affect the Lakers, specifically James. Here is how the King fared against zone in the 2011 Finals, and 2019-20 regular season, per NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh.

2011 Finals: 1-6 FG, 0 FTA, 1 TO in 35 plays

2019-20 season: 6-16 FG, 9/16 FT, 10 TOs in 172 plays

Those numbers are far from dominant, and they show LeBron has trouble against the look. Zone defenses inherently make it difficult to get in the restricted area, a location where Bron historically feasts. However, both data points can be debunked. First off, Bron is a much wiser, more experienced player now than the 2011 Finals. He’s seen so many looks throughout the years and will be prepared this time around. As for the season, we all know James hits another gear in the playoffs. The King has had a fantastic playoffs, averaging 26.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists on his usual efficient shooting (54.7 FG%). He’s going to eventually break down any coverage thrown his way.

As for the Lakers as a team, they also struggled against Miami’s zone this season. Over the course of 40 possessions, Miami sprung zone on the Lakers (an infinitesimal sample size), LA averaged a measly 0.975 points per possession, which would rank the worst in the league. Again, rotations have drastically changed since the regular season, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Lakers struggled against the zone. They did, however, start to craft smart sets to beat it. In fact, they did something that they should always do: get the ball to Anthony Davis in the middle of the court.

Davis is quite comfortable operating in between the paint and the 3-point arc. He shot 59% from midrange all season; that elbow jumper is money. By feeding Davis in the middle of the zone, the Lakers are performing the correct action. By getting the ball to their superstar in the middle, it forces the defense to either collapse on Davis, which then leaves open shooters, or allow a 6-foot-11 beast to sink easy jumpers or pound it inside.

None of this will be easy though. No matter what defense Miami plays, they’re going to make the Lakers work for everything they got. Butler, Adebayo and Iguodala are three of the smartest, strongest and most versatile defenders in the league. It’s criminal they all play on the same defense. When that trio has shared the court these playoffs, the Heat allow just 94.6 points per possession, which would easily rank as the best in the league. Butler leads all players in the playoffs with 4.1 deflections per game; he is everywhere.

Another underrated genius of the zone is that it sticks two of Miami's weaker defenders — Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro — in the corners. The baseline and sideline essentially act as two extra defenders, making it simpler for Herro and Dragic, who are both undersized, to play their role by funneling the action back to Miami's top guns.

This year's NBA Finals promises to be a war. A fantastic clash of styles, storylines and superstars. Buckle up, because, after such a long season, we deserve this epic battle. 

Photo: Getty Images