The Miami Heat are doing exactly what the past five NBA Champions have done. We just haven’t realized it till now, after they’ve pulled upset after upset in the 2020 playoffs and are just four wins away from pulling off another en route to a NBA title.
Their formula throughout these playoffs has changed over and over. That’s was the key that drove the Raptors to their Finals win last year and Golden State to all of theirs in years prior.
Miami’s firepower simply overwhelmed Indiana in the first round. Then, a ridiculous defensive effort uprooted the league’s best regular season team in the conference semi-finals. Boston followed, and subsequently squandered thanks to a different Heat menace taking over almost every night.
Miami has answers to almost every question brought to them. What happens when the threes aren’t going in? Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro and even spurts of Bam Adebayo can go get their own shot. What about a bad night from Butler? Remove him from the list above and there are your counters. The opponent wants to stop interior shot creation? Good luck helping off Duncan Robinson, Herro, a once steaming hot Jae Crowder and Miami’s other group of wings from beyond the arc.
Aside from injuries, the biggest reason why Toronto beat Golden State last year was their ability to have multiple creators on the floor at once. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet were crafty guards. Kawhi Leonard was Kawhi Leonard. Pascal Siakam was an athletic marvel who was hard to stop. Danny Green was lights out. Their big men were switchable enough that they weren’t played off the floor.
Miami is a sibling of that Toronto team, and it’s why they’re in the Finals. It really shouldn’t be shocking, despite the fact that they’ve been picked against routinely. It makes sense that Miami is here. This is no walk in the park for the Lakers.
Los Angeles has the two best players in this series and that’s about it. It’s – obviously and unsurprisingly – been enough throughout the entire regular season and playoffs. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have been purely unstoppable against Portland, Houston and Denver in all three rounds. The biggest reason the Lakers have continued to win is because those teams had no counterpunch strong enough to overcome LA’s star duo.
Miami probably doesn’t either, but they have the best personnel out of any of the Lakers’ previous opponents to limit the punch Davis and James can bring. Lowering the strike reduces the counter.
The Heat are capable of doing that. They made a trade before the deadline in February to address this very issue. Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala are the exact type of guys you throw at James – not to stop him but to at least make him work harder and differ more. Butler also exists as an option, as does Derrick Jones Jr., whose minutes should increase in this series for the exact task of guarding James. That’s four bodies the Heat can rotate in and out, and it gives them the ability to switch everything possession-by-possession if they so choose.
The Heat need to go down swinging with a switch-everything, wing-heavy scheme against James. Their zone defense has been impressive and pesky throughout the playoffs, stalling Boston on multiple occasions throughout the Eastern Conference Finals. But Boston only had one zone-breaker in Gordon Hayward, whose injuries limited his real impact. There was too little aggression from the Celtics, and it cost them the series.
James has been a force throughout the bubble, getting to the rim like it’s no one’s business. His performance to close out the Western Conference Finals in Game 5 illuminated that. Denver had no answer.
The best way to beat a zone is to be aggressive. As Brad Stevens told his players against Miami, you have to “step in.” James isn’t going to have trouble doing that.
More concerning for the Heat’s zone is what it gives up down low. The three point line and baseline tends to be wide open when the scheme is deployed. With a single big on the floor, Los Angeles can put Davis, JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard on the floor in the dunker spot and get lobs. With two bigs, Davis could be stretched out to the perimeter, and Howard or McGee can occupy the spot, leaving Miami vulnerable and forcing them to play Meyers Leonard for the first time in these playoffs.
The Lakers big lineup, which worked well against Denver thanks to Howard’s stunning lockdown of Nikola Jokic, is only viable against a zone for the Heat though. If they go to it against any other scheme, they have the size advantage, but not the math advantage. The extra big the Lakers play is overmatched by a Miami shooter, who’s going to be able to knockdown threes. Los Angeles could score every time down low and still be outscored with the way Miami has shot the ball throughout the playoffs.
The Heat give themselves a chance to win by avoiding the zone. If they deploy it, Frank Vogel should immediately go big. Erik Spolestra is too smart to let it hurt the Heat, so he’ll likely adjust right after, forcing both sides back to square one: man-to-man defense and switching.
Miami’s personnel against Davis is intriguing but also troubling. Adebayo was a brick wall against Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second round, which was seemingly impossible given the Greek Freak’s seven foot frame against Adebayo’s undersized 6’9 (Which, as written here, probably says more about Antetokounmpo’s still-lingering issues) stature. But Adebayo stood taller, and sured up any remaining doubts about his defensive ability.
Davis is a bit of a different cat. Adebayo’s a better switcher than he is a rim protector, even with the second round performance, meaning he can contain Davis when he’s away from the rim. But he’s the shot creator and jump-shooter Antentokounmpo isn’t. With the back-to-back MVP, there was never a reason to worry about tight close-outs or contesting a jump-shot. That aspect of Davis’ game is what makes calling him a big man tough. He’s really a wing who feeds in the post.
Then you still have to worry about Davis’ post-up game. Doubting Adebayo at this point seems silly, but so does doing the same for Davis. Miami doesn’t really have a bigger option that’d be more effective, so they’re just going to have to strap in and ride with Adebayo.
Miami’s second-biggest advantage in the series is that while James and Davis are clearly the top two players in the series, there’s a decent case that the Heat have the next seven or so. Butler, Herro, Robinson, Crowder, Dragic, Adebayo, Iguodala and even Kendrick Nunn or Derrick Jones Jr. are all probably the third best player on the Lakers right now. The Heat’s depth is still outstanding. The Lakers instead have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
If there’s a case for Miami to go zone, it’s that giving up the three point line doesn’t matter that much against the Lakers. Danny Green is having a tough postseason shooting, which is unfortunate given the expectations the Lakers had for him. At the same time, Green tends to be good every other postseason, and after last year, this was coming. The rest of their shooters are average – Miami is going to be willing to let Markieff Morris and KCP shoot. The Rajon Rondo shooting streak has to die at some point as well.
In terms of overall talent, Miami probably has more. But the playoffs are about stars – the Lakers are living proof of that. While the Heat are capable of limiting the damage Los Angeles inflicts, Crowder’s long been overrated as a LeBron-stopper, Iguodala is old and Butler has to save himself for offense. Adebayo would be an interesting guard on James, but then who’s on Davis?
It takes a special group to bet against James. The Warriors were that. That’s why they were picked every year from 2015-2018 against his teams, and that’s why they won three times out of those four.
Miami doesn’t quite breach those waters yet. With a series win, they will. With a strong fight, they still could. At this point, it’d be stunning if they didn’t put up a true fight.
Prediction: Lakers in 7