After considerable skepticism from people like me, the NBA has arrived at its marquee moment: the Finals. The storylines are rich here. LeBron James going for his third ring with this third franchise. LeBron vs. the Heat. LeBron vs. Pat Riley. Erik Spoelstra vs. Frank Vogel. The Dion Waiters revenge ser—okay, maybe it’s not that rich. Nevertheless, this should be an exciting matchup between two well-coached squads. With the Lakers entering as the clear-cut favorites, here are five keys for the Heat to pull off a championship-level upset.
1. Make the Lakers play in the halfcourt
Miami’s best chance at winning this series is to force Los Angeles to execute against a set defense, something the Lakers have struggled with since the start of the season nearly 11 months ago. Headed into the playoffs, L.A. finished the regular season with the 19th-best halfcourt offense, per Cleaning the Glass. And during the postseason, they have a pitiful 89.5 offensive rating in clutch time—defined as a game within five points with less than five minutes to go. The Heat, meanwhile, finished the regular season with a better offensive rating than the Lakers, and in the playoffs sport an absurd 135.4 offensive rating in clutch time. Simply put, the L.A.’s offense bogs down when it’s not pushing early in the shot clock, running off makes, or getting out in transition. Slowing the Lakers down is easier said than done. The Heat were in the bottom half of the league in turnovers per game in the regular season, though they’ve improved slightly during the playoffs.
The ideal Miami game in this series will be one with a slow pace that’s close down the stretch of the fourth quarter. The Heat played slower than the Lakers during the regular season, and have been practically the slowest team in the playoffs. (The only teams ranked lower were two Miami opponents: the Pacers and the Bucks.) Turning the game into a grind, limiting turnovers, and sprinting back after makes to prevent the leakouts L.A. loves so much should be at the top of the list for the Heat. Miami’s playoff defensive rating would have been ninth-best in the league during the regular season, and that level of discipline has to remain if the Heat want a chance in this series.
The Lakers certainly aren’t “unclutch.” And having LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the floor at the same time makes their halfcourt offense a threat no matter the statistics. But the difference between an LA team consistently getting out in transition or catching the defense napping early in the shot clock versus one that has to manufacture open shots is significant, and that’s a vulnerability Miami must exploit.
2. Dominate the three-point line
Shooting is one area in which the Heat theoretically have an advantage over the Lakers. During the regular season, Miami took the ninth-most threes per game, and connected on 37.9% of them, second-best in the league. L.A., meanwhile, took the eighth-fewest threes per game and hit 34.9% of them, good for 21st, In the playoffs, however, while Miami shoots practically five more threes a night, the teams are converting them at essentially the same rate. If the Heat do intend to slow the pace of the game down, catching fire from three could majorly swing games in their favor.
Miami certainly has capable shooters. Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson can’t be left open on the outside; all are shooting at least 36% on at least 6.5 attempts a night. The swing piece could be Jae Crowder. Acquired midseason along with Andre Iguodala and Solomon Hill, Crowder was incredibly hot from beyond the arc after arriving in Miami up until the conference finals. After shooting 43.2% against Milwaukee on over 10 threes a game, Crowder cratered against the Celtics, knocking down only 23.3% of his long-distance shots. Crowder typically closes because of his defense, and against Boston, he still had offensive value because of his instincts as a cutter. But Miami needs the semifinals version of Crowder to win this series.
The Lakers, somewhat improbably, are getting timely shooting from their supporting cast. Davis, Rajon Rondo, Markieff Morris, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are all shooting above their season averages from three during the postseason. While Davis, Rondo, and Morris in particular don’t shoot many, an extra three or two from them on a night when Miami’s shots don’t fall could be the difference between a win or loss.
The Heat need to keep their attempts up and hope their shooting percentage is closer to what it was before the playoffs. Boston was largely successful stifling the Heat’s three-point attack because of switchy wings and bigs. That’s not necessarily the Lakers’ strength, particularly when they play big. Miami’s shooters need to remain in constant motion and capitalize on the open looks they get.
3. Bam Adebayo must mirror Anthony Davis
I’m not sure the Heat should play a minute of this series with Davis on the floor and Bam on the bench—foul trouble notwithstanding. Even if the Lakers start with one of Javale McGee or Dwight Howard, Miami can live with Crowder or Jimmy Butler matching up with them and daring the Lakers to throw the ball in the post, while switching all pick-and-roll actions involving LeBron. (Even small lineups with Andre Iguodala at center can survive against bigger Laker groups.) Adebayo is easily the best individual defender Davis will have faced during the postseason, and the one most equipped to stop him.
With all due respect to P.J. Tucker, he was simply too small for Davis. Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic didn’t have the athleticism, and Jerami Grant mostly had to contend with LeBron. (We’re not even going to discuss the Blazers.) Adebayo is the total package of size, speed, strength, and smarts. While it made sense for him to roam against Giannis and the Bucks, putting Bam on Davis from the tip letting the wings contend with James seems more prudent in the Finals.
Adebayo is not going to shut Davis down. AD has been a three-level scorer during the postseason, and he’s knocking down contested midrange jumpers in a Kevin Durant-esque fashion. Bam will have to stay tight on Davis whenever he has the ball inside the three-point line, and he’ll have to be disciplined enough to bang in the post without fouling when Davis tries to get position on the block.
Of course, Bam won’t be tasked with stopping Davis alone. The Lakers offer players to cheat off of to send doubles at AD when he catches the ball in a favorable spot. Like its series against Milwaukee, Miami will have to be content with some open shots from so-so shooters if it means getting the ball out of Davis’s hands. AD has had a spectacular playoff run so far—scoring more points a night than the regular season while improving his efficiency. Even only keeping him closer to his regular numbers could pay meaningful dividends for the Heat.
4. Maintain the team focus
This isn’t necessarily a new position for the Lakers, but after James and Davis, the Heat have arguably the next four or five best players in the series. What separates Miami from Portland, Houston, and Denver is its role players are generally more experienced and well-rounded. In the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Heat have had a different leading scorer in each. Currently, Goran Dragic, Butler, and Adebayo are separated by only 2.4 points for leading scorer, with Dragic holding the edge. Meanwhile, Herro and Robinson can catch fire at a moment’s notice. And Iguodala is one of the steadiest playoff performers in league history, even when he’s not draining all of his threes. What Miami will need to do is continue its balanced attack, and its role players cannot get upstaged by Playoff Rondo or a four-minute Alex Caruso stretch that sets meme twitter on fire.
If the Heat can’t win this series at the top against James and Davis, it must win in the margins. Dragic, Herro, Robinson, and Iguodala have to outplay their counterparts on the Lakers. There are going to be random stretches that favor the Lakers. That’s the nature of a playoff game. But over the course of however many games this series goes, the Heat need a definitive advantage among its role players on both ends of the floor. Punish Javale McGee with off-ball screens. Make Markieff Morris guard someone who can attack him off the dribble. Don’t let Rondo get comfortable on the offensive end. If the series comes down to the coaches forcing the role players to execute in big moments, the Heat can’t afford to let the pendulum swing in L.A’s favor.
5. Aggressive Jimmy Butler Must Show Up From the Jump
Butler has proven to be the model teammate on and off the floor for Miami after controversial stints in Chicago, Minnesota, and Philadelphia. His penchant for letting other guys get going early in the game however, while admirable, will need to be fine-tuned during the Finals. Boston’s defense gave Butler issues during the conference finals. His scoring, efficiency, and trips to the free-throw line all dipped from the second round to the third. Butler seemingly aided the Celtics by, in the first few games at least, trying a little too hard to set up others instead of hunting for his own shot.
Butler doesn’t need to get greedy against the Lakers. (I just got done telling you about the Heat needing to maintain a team focus.) But he needs to be aggressive, particularly when he’s not being defended by LeBron. Butler is adept at getting into the lane. Yet once there, he’s often looking to pass or draw contact instead of attempting to finish. While Jimmy is great at drawing fouls—and that’s been a key to his offense—he can’t be afraid to go up strong against the Lakers’ frontcourt. In the last two games of the Boston series, Miami got out to better starts, in part because Jimmy was searching for his shot. The trips to the line will come as long as he’s committed to getting in the paint. The Lakers are much more experienced than the Celtics. Butler doesn’t need to turn the Finals into a one-man show. But the Heat can’t afford any slow starts against an L.A. team that’s been driven toward winning a championship from the second LeBron announced his arrival over two years ago.