Two months ago, 22 teams embarked on an unprecedented voyage to unchartered territory. And after occupying the Disney Springs bubble at Lake Buena Vista in Orlando, Florida, 20 teams have competed for a shot at the NBA Title, and have promptly been eliminated from the running. And after the two-month frenzy, only two remain.

We’re here.

Tipping off at 9:00 p.m. ET on ABC, it’ll finally be time for the NBA Finals, in it’s most atypical form, of course.

This sport’s showcase of immortals, if you will, is going to be unlike any of its predecessors; the atmosphere, aesthetic, even the court design is all different. But throwing the facts that there won’t be a rowdy home-court advantage and ubiquitous celebrities packing the front rows of every game to the side, two variables are left unaltered: the grandiose and pageantry the Finals naturally display, and the legacy that can be made in one of professional sports’ most historic schedule of games.

Legends arise on this stage, while those not quite ready for the spotlight always get humbled by the moment.

Back on that ominous night of March 11 when the season was suspended, we didn’t know how long (or if) we’d continue to see basketball on our television screens. It took league-wide polling, debates between Player’s Association members and league executives, formulation of testing protocols to keep players, coaching and additional staff safe from the harm that the COVID-19 pandemic has done to an innumerable number of people across the world, so thanks to the many frontline workers for making this bubble possible and safe for all.

Using recency bias, but it’s arguably been the most memorable time in the history of this league. And it’s baffling to think it is coming to an end so quickly.

Okay, now that we got all of the poetic jumbalaya out of the way, let’s get to the tale of the tape.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

1. Los Angeles Lakers (52-19, 1st in West, Won 1st Round vs. POR 4-1, Won WCSF vs. HOU 4-1, Won WCF vs. DEN 4-1) – The top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers crusaded through the Western Conference playoffs with ease, losing only a game in each series while “Gentleman’s Sweeping” their opponents in the Trail Blazers, Rockets, and Nuggets.

The Conference Finals that just about everybody saw coming featuring the Battle of Los Angeles, never came. And with the Clippers blowing a 3-1 lead against Denver to spoil the favored preseason pick of the final two in the West, the Lakers capitalized on the opportunity to get over their surprise of a lesser opponent in the conference finals with expeditious fervent.

Living legend LeBron James now heads to his tenth (!!!) NBA Finals with the sole goal of earning ring No. 4 as he continues to chase ghosts of fellow legends past on a trajectory only the King himself is on heading towards. And he’s doing all of this in his 17th season. Averaging nearly 26 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 8.8 assists this postseason, LBJ is on a mission to further supplant himself as this game’s GOAT, and he can’t think of a better way to earn that fourth ring against the same team he won his first two with.

Accompanying him is a Kentucky product that could be perceived as the most lethal teammate he’s ever played alongside in Anthony Davis, who has been on a tear in the deepest postseason run of his career. The inside-out threat has yet to meet his match in these playoffs, and he’s likely to continue to put up gawdy averages of 28.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 15 games in the 2020 NBA playoffs.

The Lakers, who finished third in overall defensive rating (106.1 Def. Rtg.) to finish off the regular season, showed why they deserved that accolade by posting an 108.1 rating while facing the likes of the two highest-scoring backcourts in the league in back to back rounds (Portland and Houston) as well as the dynamic duo of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.

Yes, the Lakers are inconspicuously top-heavy, but it wasn’t just the James and Davis show in the bubble playoffs. Frank Vogel’s halfcourt sets that incorporate the likes of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso help space the floor for LeBron and AD to make plays in, but they’re able to hold their own when things break down, as the Lakers post a 115.6 offensive rating as a team.

Additionally, the name of the game for this series is depth, and the Lakers surely have that when it comes to having energy sparks that offer support to starters when they’re sitting down. Kyle Kuzma’s shot is getting there and he’s been getting his numbers while aggresively hustling, cutting to the basket and flashing for guards to hit him in stride when they’re handling the rock.

Even Dwight Howard, who returns to Orlando for a shot at winning his first NBA championship in his second-ever NBA Finals for the team that beat him back in 2009, transformed his game during the duration of the playoffs to be the active big that’s dominated small lineups, acting as a roll threat who is always roaming off-ball.

His usage might be in question if he cannot defend Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson, and Tyler Herro onthe perimeter efficiently this series, but if he can hold his own like how he was in the conference finals, Frank Vogel could get creative with his flipping of JaVale McGee and Dwight in the active lineups to make different looks for the Heat to decipher.

Playoff Rondo reappeared out of the blue after a not too impressive regular season, and has energized off the bench as the Lakers’ sixth man by averaging a little under 10 points and 7.2 assists, which have come at big times when the Lakers have gone on huge runs to put opponents in the playoffs away.

The Lakers defend the rim well, and have length to stifle even the most creative of backcourts to get theirs in the open court, in which LeBron and crew are a spectacle in. They average a sum of 8.5 steals per game and in the series against Denver, they plucked around their regular average of 9 steals per game. For obvious reasons, Miami cannot afford to get loose with the ball and allow the Lakers set up in transition.

This postseason is one that Lakers fans have been waiting for since 2013, the last time they even got into the dance. It’s sentimental considering the fact that this is the first time in the playoffs since the late-great Kobe Bryant took them there to win title No. 16 against Boston in 2010.  Frank Vogel’s machine of a defensively-sound Lakers squad has them in the Finals for a league-best 32 times, and if their cards are stacked right, it’s likely that the elusive – and Celtics tying – title 17 is coming their way this year.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

5. Miami Heat (44-29, 5th in East, Won 1st Rd. vs. IND 4-0, Won ECSF vs. MIL 4-1, Won ECF vs. BOS 4-2) – It’s up to you if you viewed Miami’s trip to the Finals as peculiar or immaculate. Ask any fan of the South Florida franchise, and they’ll brazenly proclaim that all prognosticators have been sleeping on them all season long. Their proof? Their playoff record, and conquested foes along their path to their first Finals since 2014.

This was a business trip for Jimmy Butler, who’s repeated that consistently ever since he’s gotten in the bubble. It’s been nohting but dog fights for these Miami Heat, as they’ve clawed and scratched their way to the Finals by beating much more superior foes in the East’s best Milwaukee Bucks in five games and third-seeded Boston Celtics in the conference finals in six games. And you’d think it’d be behind the play of their only All-Star in Butler. Quite the opposite, actually.

While Butler has taken the backseat to let Erik Spoelstra’s rotation handle things in tight moments, the fiery guard play of trio of Polish Dragon Goran Dragic, undrafted rookie former “Product Development Intern” Duncan Robinson (check his LinkedIn for further clarification) and the self-expressed bucket Tyler Herro have answered the call, causing irreparable damage to all backcourts they’ve faced this postseason.

And in the backcourt is perhaps Miami’s most integral teammate, Bam Adebayo. One of a few pioneering as the future archetypes for big men in today’s (and tomorow’s) game as a point center, the Most Improved Player award nominee has been Miami’s defensive anchor as a big time rim protector and roll threat that breaks down any defense he sees.

Miami’s never-stagnant offense features so many interchangeable parts, and they become like chess pieces when fit into the manipulative gameplan Spo rolls out every game to beat the best of ’em. Miami has a bunch of dribble penetration sets in their playbook, but when people watch these Heat, they describe their offense as anything but.

Off-ball movement dominates the play sheet, and guys cut, screen, and flow into different handoff, curl, flex and drag actions that usually generate the perfect looks for shooters on the wing. And speaking of shooters, it’s rather repetitive to exclaim that nine of Miami’s scorers – that’s both lengthy wings and speedy guards combined – shot over 36 percent from downtown in the regular season. In the playoffs, that team-wide number stayed the same at 35.7 percent. Defensively is where Erik Spoelstra’s heat glow the brightest, however.

Combinations of talking, quick helpside rotations, pesky hands, sticky man-to-man physicality, and unpredictable combinations of zone coverages throw even the most elite of offenses off their games with their 109.4 defensive rating during the bubble playoffs.

They shut down any controversy of that Jimmy Butler-TJ Warren rivalry with a quick sweep of the now-diminishing Indiana Pacers, and then shocked the world by knocking off the league’s best team in Milwaukee, erasing MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and whatever chance the Bucks had of winning the division in five games. They capped off their winning of the East by coming back on the Celtics with double-digit deficits in consecutive games, relegating Boston to playing hero ball while exposing their inabilities to break Miami’s zone combinations.

These Heat have a 2019 Washington Nationals feel to them: a young core of power hitters that weren’t expected to string it together and make the playoffs in the first year they were around each other, let alone make the Finals. That is, until they ended up sneaking into the postseason with the blueprints credible enough to map out all weaknesses of their superiors in their division. And of course, that ultimately led to their qualification and eventual win of the Commissioner’s trophy with a win over the league’s best team in the other conference.

After a lenghty process of drafting well, competing, and only missing the playoffs three times since 2014, the Heat have successfully “rebuilt” a championship roster on their way to competing for their fourth title.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

NBA Finals: West’s No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. East’s No. 5 Miami Heat

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) drives to the basket against Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) and Jimmy Butler (22) in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball regular season game at the AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday, December 13, 2019 in Miami. DAVID SANTIAGO DSANTIAGO@MIAMIHERALD.COM

We’ll be getting to the basketball side of things a little later, but just speaking about the narratives in this year’s finals is taking up a whole section for itself. Some storylines of these finals include, but are not limited to:

  • LeBron, in his tenth NBA Finals, faces his old team, coach, and owner for the first time in a competitive series since he departed back to Cleveland after the 2013-14 season. After he left, rumors of LBJ wanting Erik Spoelstra fired and Pat Riley hired as the head coach swirled in the media, so there may be some unresolved conflict that rears its head this series.
  • Also, he has something to prove to doubters that said he had easy trips to the Finals because he “played in the East”, as James dominated the Western playoffs the first time around.
  • Bron will be able to take another sizeable step towards all-time supremacy if he is to win his fourth ring with his third team, something both Jordan and the Black Mamba cannot say they’ve done.
  • Erik Spoelstra meeting his (former) biggest rival in the East in Frank Vogel for the first time since those tense duels between the Pacers and Heat for three straight postseasons. Spo has never lost a series to Vogel, thanks to LeBron.
  • Jimmy Butler, the stern, hard-nosed blue-collar swingman whose personality has rubbed a litany of coaches the wrong way, has found a permanent home for the rest of his career and could affirm his place as a HOF’er by exacting his revenge on LeBron James, a player he’s never beaten in a competitive series, even dating back to his days as a Chicago Bull.
  • Is Miami another dynasty on the rise in the NBA that’s Golden State like with their profuse amount of perimeter scorers?
  • Andre Iguodala makes his sixth NBA Finals, and his fifth where his opponent will be LeBron James (remember, Iggy won the 2015 Finals MVP after shutting The King down…)
  • Who does Dwyane Wade root for? His friend and former LeBron teammate, or his native Heat?
  • (Pretty silly, but applicable: the battle of current boyfriend vs. ex-boyfriend! Tyler Herro is set to square off against Kyle Kuzma. Why is that even here, you ask? Herro is in a relationship with IG model Katya Elise Henry, Kuzma’s former companion.)
  • Dion Waiters is guaranteed a ring! Up until his suspension and eventual trade, Waiters played with the Heat for four years.
  • Last but certainly not least, the Lakers have the privilege of playing in the NBA Finals after such a tough year, and can honor the former Laker and fallen legend Kobe Bryant by winning the first title for the franchise since he won his back in 2010.

Those are a bunch, and quite honestly, a tip of the iceberg. But back to the basketball side of things: Miami got this far using the zone coverages to their advantages, but they only had to really worry about one skill position player gashing their D when they went to those 2-3, 2-1-2, and high 1-2-2 press coverages. But now, the defensive intensity will have to be focused on both Anthony Davis and LeBron James at the same time.

Remember when the Celtics went on lengthy cold streaks, frequently turning it over and not being able to generate good looks for each other? That mainly was caused by Miami’s effort to take away the middle of the defense, meaning that Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown were caught standing around, unable to cut and create driving space. Daniel Theis had the ball in his hands in the middle of the zones a lot when Miami went away from man-to-man. Meaning now, he’ll be substituted for Anthony Davis. And we all know how well AD does in the midrange.

But, the Lakers will still have to execute their offense, which heavily involves the daunting LeBron-to-AD pick-and-roll. Perhaps the most arduous two-headed attack in the bubble, double-teams and ball-denial will have to be Miami’s bread and butter this entire series, if they’re to have a chance. But, they certainly have the energy and tenacity to put up a fight. After all, they did beat the league’s best team in a series that wasn’t even close.

Offensively, they have to look toward their guards to get buckets, so that signifies a couple of things: 1) Duncan Robinson coming off curls and off-ball screens and/or dribble handoffs to catch defenders under screens, so he can pop those Klay Thompson-like attempts from behind the line, 2) Dragic-Bam Pick and Roll drives or dishes by way of lobs to get Bam’s numbers up, or 3) Jimmy Butler making instant offense as the pure hooper he is, freeing up wing shooters as they collapse on him and try to force him into a bad shot. Either way, they cannot have the third-best defensive team in the league playing them straight up.

Every game will be different, as these are two coaches that know each other inside and out. A classic series could be expected, or conversely another Gentleman’s sweep could happen for both teams. Action Network has the Lakers as -4.5 favorites in Game 1 of this series, and have them winning the series in 5 with +275 odds.

There is middle ground for both teams to work with, and just like every other series for both teams, whoever sets the tone on the glass, makes the right reads more, rotates with intent harder, turns it over less, and whatever side rises to the occasion more will win this NBA Title.

But if we’re talking Miami’s advantage in x’s and o’s…best believe the Lakers’ advantage of Jimmies and Joes in the Goliathic tandem of LeBron James and Anthony Davis could be the biggest factor that tips the scales in the favor of the 16-time world champs.

Prediction: L.A. Lakers Def. Miami Heat 4-2, Win NBA Title.   

Photo credit: vanderbilthustler.com

%d bloggers like this: