First, there are those connections in this series and there are many. Pat Riley, former Lakers players and Lakers coach who helped them win five championships as a head coach and assistant coach. Riley who also has built the Heat franchise and coached the team to its first title and then lured James to Miami to win two more rings and establish the Heat as an enduring franchise.
LeBron James, former Miami Heat player, who won two championships in Miami and went to three Finals. And now, James in Los Angeles, playing this season out as if he is on a mission, chasing the immortal ghost of the late Kobe Bryant, who died earlier this year in a tragic helicopter crash and also Laker glory.
And Jimmy Butler has been chasing respect as well ever since his days in Texas when he found himself homeless. Eric Spolestra, coach of the Miami Heat, who won two rings with LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade, but never has gotten much credit because of that star power, is chasing respect too.
But forget all that. How about some numbers. The last time, the Los Angeles Lakers played the Miami Heat, LeBron James described it afterwards as a heavyweight fight. The Lakers won that game 113–110 but it was hard fought both ways.
It was played December 13, in South Beach. If people had been paying closer attention to one of the many NBA regular season games that was pretty foretelling, they might have bet money these two teams would eventually meet. The Lakers came in to the game with a record of 22–3; the Heat were 18–6. Both teams were hot. The Heat were especially hot at home. After the game, James described Butler as a “great competitor in our league.” It was the ultimate tribute. Butler deserves it.
Now, Butler and James get to lock horns for a potential seven game series for the championship. I am told their teams have faced each other 34 times and the record is 17–17. That sounds like a seven game battle, right? But considering their version of teams have only played twice this year, it is hard to even get a good idea of how it will go.
That second game does have some relevance. Miami got up by 10 at one point. Lakers came back, went up by 7 and grinded out the win when Butler missed a three at the horn. The final score was 113–110.
The Lakers shot 49 percent from the field; the Heat — 45 percent. Lakers shot 32 percent from three; the Heat shot 30 percent. Heat shot 28 FTs; Lakers shot 22. What is in the details of that game worth noting?
One, the Lakers dominated the backboards 50 to 34, including 14 to 5 in offensive rebounds. So, why was the Heat hanging in anyway with those numbers? Mainly because the Lakers turned the ball over 19 times. Heat had 8 steals; Lakers had 9 blocks.
The stars played like stars. LeBron James had 28 points — 12 assists. Anthony Davis had 33 points 10 rebounds. Jimmy Butler had 23 points and 4 steals. Bam Adebayo who has improved even more since that game had 12 points 12 rebounds.
These teams are amazingly close statistically in the playoffs. Lakers lead the playoffs in differential at 7 points; yet, the Heat are second at 5 points. The Heat are anchored by Jimmy “Buckets” Butler. Butler brings not just points (21 per), rebounds (5 per) and assists (4), he brings leadership and energy and the mental toughness they will need to win this. Their wild card is Bam Adebayo, 18 points, 12 rebounds in these playoffs. He has surged. He is a tough cover on the boards. He defends. He is not a traditional rim stopper but he has effort and desire. Can’t measure that.
LeBron James has been remarkable as usual, even while people think he is diminished. He is nearly averaging a triple double in the playoffs including 27 points and 10 rebounds. He is third in the playoffs in assists at 9 per game. He has shot particularly well against Miami including over 50 percent from the three point line.
Then there is Anthony Davis. He is averaging 29 and 9 in these playoffs and is shooting 60 percent from the field, 37 percent from the three point line. He has been scoring from deep, from the post, at the rim, mid range, just about anything.
The talk has been to make the Lakers play half court offense. Make them shoot the three point shot. That might be a good idea. Make Rondo beat you from the three or Caruso. Pretty sure the Lakers know this. Rondo does; he is shooting 45 percent from the three in the playoffs, the highest of any Laker.
Lakers, if they expect to finish the deal, can’t give away games like Boston did against the Heat. Like when they made a defensive mistake guarding Jimmy Butler in Game 1 late or like when they let a reserve Tyler Herro posterize them for 37 points in Game 4.
This one smells like 6 or 7 games for whoever wins it or it smells like the Lakers could overwhelm the Heat, with Davis and James, the two best players in the NBA rising even higher in the pressure cooker of the Finals. If Davis and James go for about 60 points and 20 rebounds in a game and do it efficiently, it will create a lot of space to shooters even if they can’t shoot that well. That is trouble. You would rather Morris or Kuzma shoot threes.
Lakers, on the other hand, have to know Herro and Robinson can shoot and you have to guard them. The Celtics seem to not get that. Lakers will need to defend and rebound and not turn the ball over. They will need to make Butler shoot from outside and not get in the paint where he is clever and scrappy.
Overall, I think when the game is fast and is played big, the Lakers are unstoppable. James getting to the rim, Davis on the rim, and in the post, Kuzma and others cutting, fast, the offense crisp, it is a difficult cover. Rondo gets this going a lot. He is a veteran. The Heat can play fast but at their choosing would be best. The Heat want to run offense, and let their three point shooters find their targets. Robinson, Herro, Dragic, and Crowder. Then they want to defend, hard, and stay focused.
Questions: Can Iguadola still be effective guarding LeBron who now is a threat from three? Can Butler continue to shoot well from outside? Can Bam stay out of foul trouble guarding Anthony Davis and trying to keep him off the boards? Can Howard be the force he was in this series that he was against Denver? Can Tyler Herro steal a game like he did against the Celtics? Can Frank Vogel be a championship coach? Then
Then there are the pandemics: violence by police on unarmed Black people and Covid-19. Will the bubble burst before the Finals is over and we get no champ?