NBA Finals
(DSANTIAGO/MIAMIHERALD.COM)

It’s come a few months later than fans are used to, but the NBA Finals match-up is set.

LeBron James will make his ninth finals appearance in ten years and his tenth overall. He has led the Los Angeles Lakers back to the top of the Western Conference for the first time since they won the 2010 championship.

After dispatching the favored Boston Celtics in six games, the Miami Heat will represent the East for the first time since a certain Mr. James led them to four straight finals appearances starting in 2011.

There are so many intriguing storylines and on-court variables in this match-up. For all the talk of the Clippers and Bucks being the expected conference champs, this Lakers-Heat clash has a legitimate chance to be the most exciting finals series in years.

Through the regular season, the Lakers claimed both contests. In November, the Lakers put on a defensive masterclass, holding the Heat to 80 points – their season-low – in a 15 point win. A month later, the Heat lost again though by only three points. Jimmy Butler had a chance to send the game to overtime but missed a three-point attempt at the buzzer.

Those games both occurred before the shutdown; for the Heat, much has changed since the teams last faced off. At the trade deadline, Miami took a significant gamble in trading a young (injury-prone) cornerstone in Justice Winslow for Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. Veteran forward Crowder was seen as an excellent depth piece, while many questioned what Iguodala – aged 36 and had not set foot on an NBA court for over six months – could contribute.

While Iguodala has had his moments, Crowder has been a revelation since the restart. His insertion into the starting lineup has completely changed how the Heat plays defense. Despite going smaller, their switchability has flummoxed their opposition, blowing up the vaunted drive and kick game of Giannis Antetokounmpo and beating the Celtics at their small ball, switchy game.

Before the bubble, Myers Leonard was the Heat’s starting center. His shooting and shot-blocking were undoubtedly beneficial, but he’s toast when switched onto a player with any speed. Leonard is a sitting duck against LeBron, or even against Anthony Davis. It will be interesting to see if the Lakers coach sticks with JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard in his starting lineup. If he does, will Erik Spoelstra counter by inserting Leonard or the similarly stretchy Kelly Olynyk.

Either way, we’re in for a whole lot of Davis against Bam Adebayo, in what might be the marquee match-up of this finals. The former Kentucky products were both All-Stars this season. Davis has always put up superstar stats, if not results, though his career. This season he’s proven himself at the pointy end of the season with 28.8 points and 9.3 boards per playoff game, with 1.2 steals and blocks thrown in for good measure. The only man to put up similar numbers in a playoff year is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Davis has dominated inside and stretched his game required:

Adebayo is uniquely capable of handling Davis. He has enough size to battle Davis down low combined with the elite speed and athleticism to stay with the Lakers big man on the perimeter; that, of course, means Davis can stay with Adebayo, as well. How both teams utilize their playmaking bigs in this series should be fascinating. Both men do much of their damage on the drive, using their guard-like skills to beat slower centers off the dribble. If one or both are unable to create off the bounce, it takes away large parts of their teams’ respective offenses. Vogel has re-established himself as an elite defensive coach this campaign, but it would take a brave soul to bet against Spoelstra being able to come up with an offensive counter.

As Pat Riley famously said, ‘No rebounds, no rings.’ Both Bam and AD will have a big say in controlling the boards in this series. The Lakers, with their more ‘traditional’ starting lineup, put a pair of elite rebounders in James and Davis around a center. As such, LA’s rebounding has been excellent all through the season. Through the postseason, their second overall in rebounds per game, and first in offensive boards.

The Heat themselves were a strong rebounding team before coming into the bubble, though shelving their centers while unlocking their best lineups has hurt their defensive rebounding. Their offensive rebounding has jumped markedly with the smaller lineup – fourth overall in the postseason. The speed advantage that Bam and Crowder have over traditional big men allows them to beat the box out, and the long rebounds generated by the Heat’s three-point heavy offensive diet are conducive to corralling your misses.

With the way that Miami shoots the ball, those extra possessions could prove vital. Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Goran Dragic, and even Butler and Iguodala are all shooting above 35% from the arc in the postseason, and all on – at worst – reasonable volume. Jae Crowder is at 34.4%, though he’s regressing to the mean in a hurry.

The Lakers don’t have the outside firepower to match a hot Heat team. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been electric from deep in the playoffs but surely will cool off at some stage. Markieff Morris and Rajon Rondo are both shooting above 40% – that is not sustainable, even on the limited shots they put up. LeBron is LA’s most prolific shooter from deep, on attempts at least. The Heat have four players – all red hot shooters – that fire away with more regularity than any Laker. If LA gets into a shootout, it could be lights out. Controlling the defensive glass will go a long way to solving that problem.

The Heat’s supporting cast has outperformed the Lakers role players in this playoffs. Herro, Robinson, and Crowder have all shone. Whatever fountain of youth Dragic (20.9 ppg in the postseason) has been drinking from should be bottled and sold. As reliable as Green is and KCP has played, as occasionally spectacular as Playoff Rondo can be, the Lakers will need their role players to step up again.

It’s forgotten how good a coach Vogel is. His Orlando stint aside, he’s been a coach that consistently gets his teams outperforming the sum of their parts. He does that with defense. Remember, this was the man that turned Roy Hibbert into an All-Star. Without Vogel coaching him, Hibbert was out of the league within two seasons at age 30. Vogel is a coach that knows how to set a team up and make adjustments on defense.

The man on the other bench is so vastly underrated that it’s criminal. Spoelstra is a legitimate Hall of Fame coach, who has proven to be a masterful tactician in his 12 years on the Miami bench. Spoelstra has taken teams with single stars, with three superstars, with no stars, and turned them into excellent teams. Like Vogel, he preaches defense though, unlike Vogel, he’s developed into an inventive offensive planner. His Heat team play a modern NBA offense, loaded with shots at the rim, from deep and trips to the free-throw line. He does it despite his best two players being complete non-threats to make it rain. He’s turned Robinson, a man that explored a career as a sports writer, into one of the most feared weapons in the entire league.

Up to this point, it’s all looking surprisingly bleak for the Lakers. Well, there’s one contest we haven’t explored: LeBron vs. Jimmy.

Butler has been excellent in the playoffs: 20.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.9 steals. He’s even started shooting the ball from deep, making 36.7% of his two attempts per game. To gauge Butler by the numbers doesn’t do him justice, however. Jimmy Butler brings an aura. He’s one of the most driven players in the NBA, and his fearlessness has permeated through the team. For all the talk of ‘Heat Culture,’ there needs to be an emotional focal point on the floor – Jimmy Butler is that fulcrum. He will likely go head to head with LeBron. Butler has the physical tools – as much as anyone does, anyway – to take it to The King, though he will have help. Expect Crowder and Iguodala to get minutes on James, and even Adebayo to take that assignment if Davis happens to be sitting. For all that Miami can throw at LeBron, it might not matter.

James’s tenth finals appearance means that he has now participated in 13.5% of all NBA finals, per The Ringer’s Roger Sherman. In a 30 team league, that’s preposterous. With 26.7 points, 10.3 boards, and 8.9 assists, James is as close as ever to putting up a playoff triple-double average. He’s supplying 1.3 steals and a block, too. James is getting it done from everywhere. For all the talk of him slowing down, 17 seasons in and at age 35, he’s still the best player in the world.

Butler (and Crowder/Iggy/Bam) won’t stop LeBron; that much is clear. But can they slow LeBron? If Bam can play Davis to a draw, that puts an awful lot on LeBron’s massive shoulders. Does LeBron have yet another monumental effort in him? Can he fight through a thicket of bulky, physical defenders if his shooters aren’t knocking down the open shots The King inevitably creates?

The key could be giving Butler more of the ball and letting him wear down James at the defensive end, though there is the double-edged sword of marginalizing Miami’s lethal shooters, which, if Butler isn’t hitting his shots, makes the game easier for the Lakers. James will want to rest on Crowder and save his defensive legs for late-game situations, similarly to how he took Jamal Murray late in games against the Nuggets in the Conference Finals. KCP and Green will do everything they can to take the Butler assignment and keep LeBron as fresh as possible.

Something to watch is how Miami deploys zone defense variations. Most teams have a go-to zone now; Miami has a series of them. Spoelstra continually switched up not just his base defense but also his zones to mess with Boston in the Conference Finals, never allowing Jayson Tatum, especially to find a rhythm. LeBron is one of the cleverest basketballers ever to lace ’em up – he’ll figure out any defense quick smart, though an extra possession of three of confusion could be enough in a close game. The zone will also test James’ jump shot. It’s been on so far, but much like his Lakers teammates, is prone to sudden cold snaps.

The Heat have gone on somewhat of a Cinderella run to the Big Dance. If they pull off the upset win, Pat Riley – facing the Lakers in the playoffs for the first time – comes away with his tenth ring, against the team where he won his first six. If the coronation of the King of the West goes as planned, James picks up his fourth ring, taking down the team where he won his first pair of championships.

Both on and off the court, this is sure to be a fascinating bout.

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