The Los Angeles Lakers are in the NBA Finals.
They will be facing the Miami Heat, victorious over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, and we will be previewing the series here. But first I want to reiterate: the Los Angeles Lakers are in the NBA Finals.
Alright, let’s go.
The Lakers ran through the gauntlet of the Western Conference, mostly being able to play how they want to play. They were physical, they were bigger, they were more athletically imposing and they were faster than their opponents throughout their 15-game run in the postseason so far. The Heat may not allow them to bend the game towards their preferred style as easily.
When analyzing the matchup between these two teams, one thing stands out more than anything else: the pace at which they play. Over the course of the regular season, the Lakers averaged 101.2 possessions per game, just shy of the top third of the league. The Heat, meanwhile, only played faster than the Hornets, Nuggets, and Pistons with 98.7 possessions per game. The gap between the two has grown smaller in the postseason with the Lakers playing a much more half-court oriented game since the playoffs have started. But make no mistake, the Lakers want to play fast and push the pace. It allows them to get easy scoring opportunities in transition, limit their spacing issues, and allow Anthony Davis to dominate inside before he can be doubled. In nearly every situation, a fast-paced game favors the Lakers.
The Heat, by virtue of their All-Star center Bam Adebayo and his elite playmaking skills as a big, prefer the half-court game. It allows Adebayo to pick teams apart from the high post with a variety of offensive options running around screens or cutting to the basket. In addition, it allows Goran Dragic and Jimmy Butler to run pick and rolls with phenomenal spacing due to the 3-point shooting prowess of Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson (as well as Jae Crowder). In many ways, the Heat are similar to the Nuggets in how they run their offense; you will see a ton of dribble hand-offs and the Lakers won’t be able to trap the ball-handler because Adebayo can pick out the easy pass in a four-on-three situation.
The Zone Defense
You’ve probably heard this but now but the Heat play zone defense more than anyone else in the NBA by a large margin. As you can imagine, they only do that because they can do it effectively, as they did for large stretches against the Celtics.
The Celtics have now faced more zone defense (261 pos) in the #NBA Playoffs than the rest of the postseason field combined. They have scored 0.85 points per zone possession in the postseason overall, but have trended closer to the league average of 1.00 over the last 3 games.
— Synergy Basketball (@SynergySST) September 28, 2020
We can expect to see the Heat go to this well quite often against the Lakers and try to force the team’s shooters to beat them. The Lakers have struggled from the 3-point line (35.5% from three in the playoffs, ranking 12th in the league – one spot below the Heat) and particularly above the break. That is, the Heat will try to zone the Lakers and take away the corner three, forcing them to take the shot they have been worst at all playoffs long.
The Lakers have seen their share of zone played against them as well, especially against the Rockets and had mixed results. The shooting struggles are a real issue but they found success against Miami in the regular season by putting Anthony Davis at the free-throw line and playing off of him. Adebayo tends to give you space for that jumper and Davis is on fire from the mid-range right now. If Bam does play up to him, AD can drive past to get fouled. If Miami brings an extra defender, the Lakers’ star can either find another big for the lob or pass it out to a shooter and he has become a much better and more controlled passer as the season has gone on. Using Davis at the nail allows LeBron James to handle the ball on the perimeter, drive against an unbalanced defense, and find the holes in the zone much more easily, but he is also capable of being placed in that same role where his passing can pick apart Miami’s defense.
The Lakers have enough cutting and passing to find success against Miami’s zone. More importantly, they have the size to get a ton of second-chance opportunities; the zone defense by its very nature gives up offensive rebounds and while Miami boasted the third-best defensive rebound rate in the regular season, there should be opportunities to exploit that advantage. Pushing the pace can also create an advantage by forcing the Heat to scramble to match up in transition despite not having a true assignment to guard. Ultimately though, the Lakers will have to hit threes against the Heat at a decent clip and for guys like Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, and Danny Green, making those shots is the difference between being on or off the floor to help your team in other areas. It will also be up to Frank Vogel and staff to put the correct lineups out on the floor to beat the zone.
For a more detailed analysis of the Heat’s zone defense, I’d recommend this Laker Film Room video from one of their regular-season matchups:
Stepping away from the details and looking at the bigger picture, this series is fascinating from a pure matchup standpoint. Two Kentucky big men will spend large portions of the Finals guarding each other although the Lakers may opt to use JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard for stretches against Adebayo, who if you don’t already know, is already an outright star. Adebayo is capable of carrying the Heat offense with his unique skillset while also protecting the rim and guarding the perimeter defensively. He is about as complete of a player as you can expect from a first-time All-Star.
The Heat are similar to the Rockets in their roster construction with a variety of wings that get significant playing time. Any and all of Jimmy Butler, Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and possibly Solomon Hill could see time guarding LeBron James. Will Butler take the assignment in crunch time or will the Heat use Iguodala who has faced James in the Finals four previous times so that Butler can pester other Lakers’ perimeter players and create turnovers? Meanwhile, the Lakers will try to “hide” James on defense for most of the game to conserve his energy and allow him to roam as a weakside helper with Danny Green a solid option to guard Butler even if he is giving up some size. Still, we will surely see James on Butler for portions of the game.
Butler and Adebayo are the Heat’s two big stars and capable of taking over games but the Heat have had success even when those two aren’t scoring because they have so many scoring options. Goran Dragic has been phenomenal all playoffs long and the Lakers’ guards will have their hands full defending him in the pick-and-roll and as a spot-up shooter. Duncan Robinson is an elite shooter who will keep his navigating around screens all game long. Tyler Herro comes off the bench looking to score in bunches but he’s also a playmaker that will burn you if you overplay him for the shot. Six of the seven Heat players to play more than five minutes scored at least 13 points in their game six win over the Celtics; Crowder finished with nine points but he’s been lighting up teams from behind the arc for the majority of the playoffs.
Much like the series against Denver, the Lakers will have to be exceptionally disciplined and focused defensively to guard a Heat team with potent weapons and an incredible coach that gets the best out of them. They’re not a great jump-shooting team but have dangerous weapons from deep and they have a superstar that can get to the line at will in crunch time. Small quirks like going under screens against Butler, shading a defender into the paint against Miami’s pick and roll (like they did against Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic) can be the difference between a championship and going home to LA with nothing to show for it.
In all certainty, this will be another stressful and hard-fought series. The Heat do not quit and will absolutely outwork you if you let them. But the Lakers have also been resilient and reluctant to take their foot off the gas. And when push comes to shove, they have been able to rely on two superstars taking them over the top.
Enjoy the Finals, everyone. Because once again, the Los Angeles Lakers are in the NBA Finals.