LeBron James is back in the NBA Finals for a jaw-dropping ninth time in 10 seasons. This time he’s facing the franchise that gave him the blueprint to make it an annual trip for the past decade. There are a million interesting story lines in this championship series between the Lakers, who closed out the Nuggets on Saturday, and the Heat, who put away the Celtics on Sunday. But none is bigger than LeBron going up against his old coach and team.
Miami is now a very different squad than the one LeBron left in 2014. Udonis Haslem is the only player still remaining, and he’s long since become an honorary assistant coach. Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley are still preaching the same values they instilled in LeBron in his four seasons in South Beach, but they’re now directed at a new franchise player, Jimmy Butler, and a versatile supporting cast headlined by two rising young stars in Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro.
This should be a grindhouse of a series between two defensive-minded squads built around a supersized wing and a new-age big man from Kentucky. And it’s hard to argue that the Lakers and Heat aren’t the best two teams in the NBA after each breezed through their conference with a 12-3 record in the playoffs. No quarter will be given and nothing will come easy over the next two weeks.
Here are three key questions entering the series:
Can the Lakers space the floor against the Heat?
Los Angeles is undefeated in the playoffs when it shoots higher than 30 percent from the 3. None of the teams it faced in the West had the star power (or defensive personnel) to corral LeBron and Anthony Davis. The only chance opponents had was to throw multiple defenders at the Lakers’ stars and hope “the others” couldn’t make them pay. L.A. hasn’t shot that well from deep (35.5 percent on 31.9 attempts per game) this postseason, but it has done enough to coast to the Finals.
The biggest surprise for the Lakers has been the return of Playoff Rajon Rondo, who is shooting better from distance (44.8 percent on 2.9 attempts per game) than he has in his entire career. The benefits of Rondo shooting well are threefold. He’s giving his team another threat from the perimeter, and he’s doing it as one of their best playmakers and best defenders. Frank Vogel will have to make some tough decisions in crunch time if Rondo’s jumper regresses to the mean.
One of the keys to Miami’s success against Boston was deploying a variety of zones that kept them off-balance. Don’t be surprised if it tries something similar against Los Angeles, especially when the Lakers are playing big with either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard at center next to LeBron and AD. The Heat will want to make those lineups beat them from the perimeter.
How much will LeBron vs. Jimmy dictate the series?
Let’s go back to 2015. It was LeBron’s first season back in Cleveland, and the last time that he squared off against Butler in the playoffs. The second-round series between the Cavs and Bulls is remembered for game-winning shots from Derrick Rose (which became an iconic meme) and LeBron, which came after he told David Blatt to change his play call in the huddle.
In 2020, the more important takeaway from that series is how well Butler guarded LeBron. It’s not that he shut him down. That’s impossible now, much less when he was at the absolute peak of his athletic ability. But Butler made him work for his offense, “holding” him to 26.2 points per game on 40.0 percent shooting. There’s not a wing in the NBA with a better chance of stopping LeBron from bullying his way to the rim. LeBron was 30 and Butler was 25 in that series. It will be fascinating to see how that matchup plays out now that LeBron is 35 and Butler is 31.
The Heat can count on Butler to step up on defense. The question is his offense. He wasn’t nearly as aggressive against the Celtics as he was against the Bucks. He’ll have to hunt for his own shot more against the Lakers. LeBron will likely take it easy on defense early in games, guarding Jae Crowder and handing off Butler to Danny Green or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. But he could take the challenge in the fourth quarter, much like he did against Jamal Murray at the end of the Western finals. Butler won’t be able to take the crown from LeBron without a fight. He will have to outplay him on both ends of the floor.
Can Bam Adebayo play Anthony Davis to a draw?
The two Kentucky big men have leveled up in the playoffs. Davis has proved that he can be a legitimate superstar, averaging 28.8 points on 57.1 percent shooting, 9.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. The only player in NBA history to reach those marks in the postseason is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. None of the Lakers’ opponents had any answer for Davis, especially when they downsized with him at the 5 and played more shooters around him.
Bam has shot up the pecking order among the league’s big men in only his third season. The key to the Heat’s playoff surge was benching their traditional centers and using him full time at the position. Even his excellent postseason averages (18.5 points on 57.1 percent shooting, 11.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.9 blocks, and 1.2 steals per game) don’t quite show how dominant he has truly been. He has been the key to the Heat’s success on both sides of the ball. Miami goes from a net rating of plus-8.2 with him in the playoffs to minus-3.9 without him. He made all the difference in Game 6 against the Celtics, closing them out with 32 points on 11-of-15 shooting, 14 rebounds, and five assists, including several massive dunks in the fourth quarter that swung the tide.
Both Davis and Bam have been the best big men on the floor in each of their first three series. The one who wins their matchup will go a long way toward determining the winner of the whole thing. AD dominated his younger counterpart in two regular-season wins, averaging almost three times as many points (29.5 to 11.5) on a far higher field goal percentage (59.5 to 50) while matching him in rebounds and assists. Bam has leveled up several times since those meetings. He will have to go up several more to evenly match Davis, much less beat him.