As the NBA Bubble experience reaches its final lap to the finish line, the players and all involved in the NBA’s save-the-season maneuver inhale for a collective second wind. Adam Silver, with the help of the staff at Disney World, created a Bubble that exists as arguably the U.S.’s safest environment. The U.S. government could learn a thing or two from such procedures.
With the league surrounded by magical Disney characters in an enchanted fantasy environment, it’s only fitting that we get a Cinderella story for the 2020 NBA Finals. The Miami Heat, a franchise with a rich 21st-century history involving LeBron James, versus the Los Angeles Lakers and seemingly the last chapter of the best player for the past decade-plus.
Although the Finals matchup is mouth-watering from a narrative and strategic point of view, the journies of both teams deserve a recap.
The Heat’s journey to the 2020 NBA Finals
Each finalist defeated quality teams in its journey to the NBA Finals. Impressively, the Heat defeated an Eastern Conference powerhouse favored to reach the Finals in the Milwaukee Bucks. Jimmy Butler, along with his 4 a.m. workout partners, convincingly eliminated a team led by back-to-back MVP winner Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra outdueled Brad Stevens in six games. The famous Miami Heat culture meshed with its superstar, Jimmy Butler, perfectly. Pat Riley, the godfather of the NBA, regarding his slicked-back hair and mob-boss-like suit collection, had found his muse to lead the team.
Notorious for his polarizing, demanding approach to leadership, Butler grooved with the young-yet-competitive Heat roster. Veteran point guard Goran Dragic’s redemption performance served as the X-factor in the Heat’s series leading up to the matchup with the Lakers.
Bam Adebayo blossomed as a legitimate star before our eyes, notably blocking a Jayson Tatum dunk attempt in a game-deciding possession of the Eastern Conference Finals. Not only did Adebayo perform on the court, he also exhibited maturity after a Game 5 loss.
“It’s not my teammates’ fault, it’s not my coaches’ fault. It’s me. I missed too many shots I should have made. Put that one on me.”
Despite flirting with a triple-double and shooting 45% from the field, the 23-year-old All-Star felt he didn’t perform up to his standards. Adebayo’s actions followed the suit of his comments, as he responded with 32 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a Finals-clinching Game 6 performance.
Continuing the trend of young players experiencing coming-of-age moments at the expense of the Boston Celtics, rookie Tyler Herro burst out of the seams in South Beach style. Herro’s confident poise and 37-point performance (on 14-of-21 shooting) spoke volumes of what’s yet to come from the promising shooting guard.
Los Angeles Lakers’ ride to the 2020 NBA Finals
In light of a resurgent defensive effort from James, the Los Angeles Lakers looked poised to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. Their first test was the Portland Trail Blazers, led by the MVP of the seeding games, Damian Lillard.
Despite dropping the first match against the eight-seed, the Lakers made light work of the Trail Blazers by winning the next four games. Beating an understaffed eighth seed doesn’t call for a standing ovation, but the rest granted by taking care of business pays dividends.
The semifinals pitted the Lakers against the guard-heavy Houston Rockets. Once again, the Lakers lost Game 1 to a hot-and-ready James Harden. Even with the frontcourt of giants at his disposal, Frank Vogel seldom played Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee. Instead, Anthony Davis and James orchestrated fast-break basketball like a poetic tribute to Mike D’Antoni.
Amidst Russell Westbrook’s on-court implosion, the Lakers laid out an offensive onslaught to once again handle the competition in five games.
On the heels of an epic comeback over the favored Los Angeles Clippers, the Denver Nuggets met the well-rested Los Angeles Lakers. Game 1 had it all; a close first quarter, technical fouls and a beatdown, which typically signals a sweep. However, the Nuggets thrived under adversity.
Anthony Davis saved the Lakers from defeat with a game-winning 3-pointer despite Nikola Jokic’s 10 consecutive points in the last few minutes. The Lakers found themselves down by 20 points in Game 3, yet defensive stops by backup point guard Rajon Rondo decreased the deficit to three points. Despite the late-game efforts from L.A., the Nuggets escaped a near collapse.
Following the loss, James set his focus on guarding the drastically improved Jamal Murray, which resulted in a victory, shifting the Lakers back to familiar territory: the NBA Finals. Dramatically, as LeBron prefers, the four-time regular season MVP ignited for 16 fourth-quarter points to extinguish the bubbly Bubble story of the Denver Nuggets in five games.
While the stints of excellence from the Lakers’ role players were enough to reach the NBA Finals, the Bubble doesn’t pop until a king dons the crown. Alex Caruso continued his wow-he-can-do-that level of play in the playoffs. Rajon Rondo, or “Playoff Rondo,” for those who believe, pushed the envelope on defense with his pesty steals versus Denver. Dwight Howard found moments of success, delving into a newfound heel turn and doing his best to disturb the Nuggets.
The Heat, although scattered with youth, play the game with the edge of champions. Goran Dragic, at age 34, led his team in scoring and usage. No matter his opponent, the Slovenian veteran gained the upper hand.
For the Lakers to completely control the pace, it’s imperative Dragic runs into a few obstacles. Caruso must channel the best version of himself to throw off Dragic enough to spoil the Heat’s championship run.
As the team’s leader in steal percentage, an ultimate energy ball in human form and an oddly athletic guard, Caruso takes the cake as a fitting candidate for the Lakers’ X-Factor. Furthermore, he played well against Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum, albeit in a small sample.
In the eight minutes locking horns with McCollum, Caruso suffocated Lillard’s running mate into shooting an abysmal 28% from the field. The 26-year-old guard also exhibited a chase-down block on a Harden layup in the Rockets series. Dragic, nowhere near the athletic specimen of Westbrook nor as explosive as Murray, leaves enough leeway for Caruso to make a difference defensively.
For all the talk of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, another player can spoil the Lakers’ title hopes. Regardless of whether ESPN’s Paul Pierce refuses to acknowledge the Eastern Conference Finals scoring eruption, Tyler Herro earned his reputation as a dangerous shot-maker in the postseason.
Considering Butler and Adebayo will have their hands full with multiple defenders surrounding them, it’s crucial to the Heat’s generous offense that Herro continues his production. Herro survived the elite defensive unit of Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.
It’s incredible how much confidence the rookie exudes in pressure-filled moments of the postseason. Herro lives up to his last name in the deciding minutes. Looking at his clutch splits, he finished plus-12 in the final five minutes of contests while shooting 57% from deep.
The Lakers will lock their targets on the Heat’s veterans and star players, allowing Herro the freedom to create chaos. Coming out hot with pull-up jumpers and successful drives are a few weapons in the rookie’s arsenal.
Few NBA Finals matchups include a rookie as a vital component to push his team over the top. The astonishing development of the never-hesitant 20-year-old provides an intriguing wrinkle to an all-time story.
How the Lakers win
Never mind James’ age, the production from the 35-year-old first-ballot Hall of Famer defies both logic and physics. Despite his advanced basketball age and the thousands of miles logged from appearing in nine of the past 10 NBA Finals, the three-time champion hasn’t lost to Father Time.
If anything, years of energy preservation enabled him to outlast his opponents in the long run. The Lakers’ transition offense wreaked havoc on their Western Conference postseason counterparts. However, the Miami Heat stand as the stingier team, coughing up the ball three times a game fewer than the Lakers.
James, although a human wrecking ball himself, has a teammate capable of destruction in pick-and-roll scenarios. Consistently forcing switches to slot Butler onto the bigger Davis, thus putting the Marquette alum in a compromising situation, spells success for L.A. Also, testing the limits of Adebayo’s defensive prowess with James in the driver’s seat is another option for Vogel.
The array of wing defenders the Heat will throw at James, although a respectable bunch, don’t carry the same weight as 2014 NBA Finals Kawhi Leonard. James pressuring the NBA officials into blowing the whistle rather than settling for mid-range jumpers also plays a significant role in the Lakers’ odds at a championship.
How the Heat win
The title of leader and inspiration of the team no doubt belongs to Jimmy Butler. The narrative of the Heat’s championship run, although a collective effort, favors the Butler story.
Yes, Butler’s clutch-time heroics saved the Heat on a few occasions versus the Celtics, but the offensive consistency in addition to the pace-setting of Dragic marks the main constant in the Heat’s gameplan. Butler can’t afford to warm up late in games against such an explosive offense of the Lakers.
No more of the “get my teammates confident” approach; the Heat need more of the relentless, don’t-give-a-damn attacks to the rim from their fearless leader. Looks for the Heat will reveal themselves with Butler as the aggressor. Speaking of aggression, keeping the defense honest with a few more attempts from the perimeter will grant Butler another tool. The measly two shots a game from deep won’t cut it.
Coach Spoelstra’s zone defense confused the young Boston Celtics. However, using such a defense against the Lakers doesn’t seem like a viable option. Instead, the pressure must be on James to create rather than score. Butler on James in the fourth quarter shapes up as the series-defining matchup. Spoelstra assigning Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder on James for the duration of the game while Butler focuses energy primarily on offensive possessions is likely the plan.
In order for the Heat to touch NBA gold once again, Butler must consistently play to his superstar reputation, and not only in the final minutes.
All stats appear courtesy of NBA.com/stats and Basketball-reference.com