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Three Key Factors That Could Decide the NBA Finals

Will LeBron get his fourth ring? Or will Miami’s storybook run through the playoffs continue? Here are the biggest reasons each side could win it all—or not.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2020 NBA Finals tip off on Wednesday, and they’re bursting at the seams with story lines. LeBron James is seeking his fourth NBA championship against the team with which he won his first two; Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra are facing the titan who got away with a rebuilt roster that ranks among the unlikeliest finalists in league history; Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo are vying for primacy as the face of the future of NBA big men; Tyler Herro is continuing his nomadic quest for something—anything—that might shake his confidence.

With narrative hooks stuffed into every nook and cranny of the Lakers-Heat matchup, it can be easy to lose sight of … well, the matchup. So as we get set for Game 1, here are three things worth keeping an eye on when L.A. and Miami take the court for the final series of this extraordinary (in all senses of the word) NBA season.

Styles Make Fights, and Size Matters

In both the regular season and the playoffs, the Lakers’ preferred starting lineups and most frequently used units skewed huge: JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard at center alongside Davis and LeBron. (Avery Bradley, who made 44 starts for L.A. during the regular season, chose not to participate in the league’s restart; in his absence, Frank Vogel has started the 6-foot-6 Danny Green and the 6-foot-5 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the backcourt.) Miami favored big lineups during the regular season too, with center Meyers Leonard playing alongside Adebayo. But Spoelstra reexamined his rotation during the league’s pandemic-sparked hiatus and decided to go smaller with some combination of: Adebayo at center; Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Duncan Robinson, and Andre Iguodala on the wings; and Goran Dragic and Herro on the ball. Spoelstra traded in size for speed, shooting, and defensive versatility, and the resultant jolt in playmaking and skill has paid dividends: The Heat have scored 113.4 points per 100 possessions in the postseason, up from 111.9 during the regular season. That uptick happened despite Miami facing Indiana, Milwaukee, and Boston, three of the league’s six stingiest defenses.

We know that L.A. can go smaller. After the Lakers lost Game 1 of their second-round series to the Pocket Rockets, Vogel moved away from McGee and Howard, shifted Davis to center, slid the more mobile and malleable Markieff Morris into the starting lineup, and leaned harder on Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso. The Lakers promptly dismantled Houston, winning four straight. But this L.A. team has been built on a foundation of relentlessly protecting and attacking the rim, smothering opponents with size. Vogel will likely start big—perhaps with Howard, fresh off a strong performance against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets in the conference finals, starting over McGee. It’s on the Heat to pose enough problems with their ball and player movement to force L.A. to downsize. Which coach will blink first?

If the Lakers start pounding the paint and dominating the glass, will Spoelstra take the 7-foot Leonard out of mothballs for just his second appearance of the postseason? If Crowder recovers his red-shot shooting form from before the conference finals on what figures to be a steady diet of open looks against centers helping off of him into the paint, and if Dragic and Herro are able to get north-south in the pick-and-roll against L.A.’s more lumbering bigs, will Caldwell-Pope, Green, Caruso, and Rondo be equal to the challenge of sticking with Miami’s wings? How those complementary pieces perform when pressed into larger roles could go a long way toward determining which team sets the terms of engagement.


How Much Will the Heat Play Zone, and Can the Lakers Make Them Pay for It?

If the Lakers do stay big, protecting the rim has to be Miami’s top priority: L.A. ranks second in the NBA in both the regular season and the postseason in percentage of total field goal attempts taken at the rim, and no. 1 with a bullet in shooting accuracy at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Heat leaned heavily on zone defense against the Celtics in the conference finals in hopes of walling off dribble penetration and keeping Boston off the foul line, and it worked; Miami held the Celtics to 171 points on 177 possessions against the zone, just 96.6 points per 100 possessions, well below Boston’s full season (112.8 per 100) and overall postseason (111.6 per 100) marks.

Returning to zone looks against L.A. could help Miami keep the ball outside and force the Lakers to make jumpers to generate points in the half court—a decent gambit against an opponent that is shooting just 37.9 percent outside the paint in the playoffs. The Lakers have shot 38.6 percent from 3-point range in their postseason wins, compared to just 22.9 percent in their losses. The difference wasn’t quite as stark during the regular season, with L.A. shooting 36.9 percent from 3 in wins and 29.9 percent in losses, but the split was there. (And if Vogel decides to go smaller to get more viable shooters on the floor to cash in on those perimeter looks, well, then Spoelstra has forced the favorite to adjust and play off its back foot, which is a win in and of itself.)

Even if the Lakers struggle to knock down outside shots, though, they can still punish the zone by staying big. Spoelstra has favored a 2-3 zone in which bigger wing defenders—Butler, Crowder, Iguodala, and Derrick Jones Jr.—play up top to pressure ball handlers with their length, while guards like Dragic and Herro flank Adebayo along the back line. L.A. can terrorize that lack of size down low, and any missed box outs that can occur when players are not tracking a specific assignment, by flooding the open spaces in the zone and crashing the offensive glass, a strategy that suits its personnel and preferred style. The Lakers rank third in the postseason in offensive rebounding percentage, and second in putback points produced per 100 missed shots, according to Cleaning the Glass (with the Grizzlies, who played just one play-in game before bowing out, ranking first in both categories). Howard, McGee, Davis, and James—and more than that, helpful gang-rebounding guards like Green, Rondo, and Caruso—could have a field day extending possessions and generating clean second shot opportunities against a Heat defense that can’t quite match up.

The Lakers have faced just 30 possessions of zone defense through the first three rounds of the postseason, according to Synergy Sports tracking numbers cited by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. Suddenly staring at a steady diet of it could highlight the half-court woes that plagued L.A. throughout the regular season, and put immense pressure on a rotation full of shaky shooters. There are ways to attack the zone, though: setting ball screens to get dribblers downhill, sending cutters through it, putting a playmaker at the nail or out of the post to invite the defense to collapse, etc. And by the end of the conference finals, Boston seemed to have the Heat’s zone pretty well wired, generating a ton of good looks against the 2-3.

With savant playmakers like LeBron and Rondo, as well as a scheme-breaking scoring threat like Davis, at their disposal, the Lakers’ learning curve might not be as steep. That could push Spoelstra out of the zone and into more man-to-man matchups—which, in turn, could open the door to LeBron hunting switches and mismatches in a Heat rotation that features a number of appetizing targets, including Dragic, Herro, Robinson, and potentially bigs like Leonard and Kelly Olynyk.

Can the Lakers Shut Down Miami’s Postseason Heroes?

The Heat have made a killing in these playoffs by forcing defenses to play Whac-A-Mole. No team in the postseason passes the ball more; only the Magic logged more aggregate miles moving around the floor on offense. Six different Miami players are averaging double-figure points; five have led the Heat in scoring in a playoff game. Play Butler straight up and try to take away his passing options, and he can bust you up for 40. Devote extra attention to him, and Robinson might slip free and drill a half-dozen triples. Slot your best perimeter defender onto Robinson to keep him from getting loose, and Dragic carves you up in the pick-and-roll. Slide that stopper over to Dragic, and suddenly Herro is raining fire.

Miami’s flowing motion offense, unselfish style, and versatile and multifaceted roster prevent opponents from being able to shut the Heat down by keying on one guy. The one possible exception: limiting Adebayo’s ability to operate from the elbows, where he’s received more touches, scored more points, and delivered more assists than any other player in the postseason.

The Heat’s bread-and-butter is the dribble handoff game: Bam at the elbows, with a shooter or playmaker flying off the ball, taking a pitch, and either raising up in rhythm or slicing into the paint to attack the rim. Miami led the league in handoff frequency and scoring efficiency during the regular season, and ranks first and fourth, respectively, in the playoffs. While Bam isn’t the only Miami player who can act as that sort of dribble-pitch pivot point, he serves as the playmaking hub of the Heat’s equal opportunity attack, and just about everything they do flows from those initial entries and movements.

These Lakers have consistently defended handoffs well, allowing 0.88 points per possession on such plays in both the regular season and postseason. They might have the right combination of length and athleticism to limit both Adebayo (with Davis, Howard, and McGee) and his receivers (Caldwell-Pope, Green, Rondo, and Caruso), either staying attached around the initial action or effectively switching to muck up the Heat’s rhythm, prevent clean looks or releases, and force them to work deeper into the shot clock. The harder it is for Miami to generate quality half-court offense, the tougher its overall task becomes against a Lakers team that hunts transition opportunities more often than, and as profitably as, any other team in the league.

Still, if Adebayo can navigate the Lakers’ length, orchestrate, and attack as well as he did against Boston—he was regularly the best player on the floor, averaging 21.8 points on 60.8 percent shooting, 11 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game in that series—Miami could force L.A. to begin more of its offensive possessions by taking the ball out of the basket and preparing to face a set defense. That could tilt the pace and style of play more toward an underdog that doesn’t feel like such an underdog anymore.