chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Well, this NBA season that has entered a bubble and is about to last a full calendar year officially begins its finals tonight. Lakers-Heat is almost certainly not the matchup that none of us thought we would get. But it’s full of storylines for a variety of reasons – and it looks like it can honestly go either way, given how well Miami has played against top-tier competition all post-season.
What are you most interested in seeing at the start of the finals tonight? What strikes you as the most important key to all of this?
dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’m a pretty big nerd, so I’m very interested in seeing how teams line up defensively. Does Bam Adebayo start with Anthony Davis or do they try to hide it for a while? Jae Crowder guarding Davis or LeBron James? And how do the Lakers line up LeBron, Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope against Goran Dragić, Jimmy Butler and Duncan Robinson / Tyler Herro. I can̵
chris.herring: The matchups, the X’s and the O’s are fascinating in this series, aren’t they? And the things we will see at the beginning are also likely to just start.
dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): In terms of matchups, I’m interested in how the Heat try to slow down LeBron too. They brought in guys like Crowder and Andre Iguodala specifically for a series like this … so how are they going to use them on the defensive?
I guess both of them will spend most of their time on defense guarding LeBron.
dubin: A big change in this series will be if the Heat decide to use Crowder on LeBron or AD. Davis tends to do better against the greats, so it might make sense to have Crowder on him, but even the Heat probably don’t want Jimmy to spend all night dealing with LeBron.
chris.herring: Not that he has an immediate tie-in, but remember that clip of LeBron on the free-throw line showing frustration when he saw that Kawhi Leonard was returning to the game to defend him? For your point, though, it’s a really grueling task to guard someone of the caliber of LeBron or even Butler for an entire game. Expect to see different people with these responsibilities over the course of the night.
One thing that strangely intrigues me here is how much offensive rebound – something that has been dwarfed in recent years – can matter in this series. The Lakers often play two traditional big players at a time, and the Heat just smash their asses often. Also for this reason the zone defense that Miami plays becomes a little more risky.
dubin: The Celtics grabbed the offensive scoreboard on nearly 30 percent of their mistakes in the last series, far higher than either of the two previous Heat playoff opponents. The fact that Miami has played so much in the zone has certainly contributed to that, and if they go into the heavy zone against the Lakers, they could create problems there.
That said, the whole point of the zone is cutting out access to the paint, and this could be the Heat’s best chance of winning the series. If they can turn it into a 3-point shooting contest, I feel it’s really good for them.
chris.herring: Great point.
dre.waters: On the other hand, though, if Miami beats the Lakers by bouncing off the offensive finish, they definitely have the deep shot to make them pay. Butler, Crowder, Iguodala, Dragić, Robinson and Herro all shoot over 34% from 3 points.
chris.herring: The Lakers’ outside shot was never their strong point, even though that streak of Bron’s final wins was how they ultimately put the Nuggets away.
dubin: Shooting KCP in the mid-40s from deep within the playoffs compared to its usual mid-30s was pretty big. The same with Rajon Rondo who shot over 40 percent in nearly three attempts per game.
chris.herring: This would be such a horrible time for one of them to revert to the average.
dubin: On the other hand, it would be a good time for Danny Green to move up to the media.
chris.herring: A complicating factor in trying to make sense of this meeting: they last met in December, almost 10 months ago.
dubin: Kendrick Nunn and Meyers Leonard were still in the starting lineup! James Johnson protected LeBron in the first fight! Quinn Cook protected Dragić!
Those were the good old days.
dre.waters: It seems a long time ago. A lot has changed for Miami since then.
chris.herring: In those two fights, the Heat were either head-to-head or forward throughout the first half. But each time, the Lakers have had big third quarters, winning one of 10 and the other of 11.
Erik Spoelstra is a fantastic coach and, if anything, this race has shown how good he is. But the Heat have been a pretty bad second-half side over the course of the season, while the Lakers have been relatively solid in that respect. Miami has lost a record 18 NBA games in which it held a lead of at least 10 points.
I’m not sure if it’s a focal issue, or just that the heat changes defenses a lot mid-game, which could turn the tap on or off for the opponent. But it will be interesting to see if they can get the job done if and when they take the lead against L.A.
dubin: I wonder how many of these came before the outage and how many entered the bubble. Feelings are not numbers, but it seems that it was the team that made the comebacks in the playoffs, not the team that brought the opponents back.
chris.herring: Certainly there seems to be some truth in this, even in the decisive Eastern Conference case. I chose Miami in this series, partly because of how well they played against what I perceive to be better competition and partly because of a lack of sensitivity.
dre.waters: I actually chose Miami too. In terms of playing outside of their top players, they have been much more consistent with me. And, as Chris said, he was up against better competition: Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics.
dubin: I feel we could have said “the Lakers have the two best players in the series but the [opponent] has the next five or six “on every series in which L.A. has been so far. How much do we think it matters in a series where LeBron and AD will play around 40 minutes a night anyway?
chris.herring: I’m at least a little concerned about the Heat’s ability to produce a steady attack against this Laker defense. Much of this will depend on the type of appearance Adebayo takes as a shooter and passer-by. And a lot will depend on the Lakers’ defensive approach, which, as Jared said, will likely involve Davis for long periods.
Jared, you didn’t choose Miami too, did you?
dubin: Nobody asked me to make a final choice, unless that doesn’t matter here. I think I’d go a little bit towards the Lakers, but mostly because I think picking against LeBron is a bit silly and not because I think the Lakers are actually better.
dubin: (I’m not calling you stupid, in case it sounds like that. I just feel silly choosing Non LeBron.)
It’s always hard to pick against LeBron, but someone had to do it, right?
chris.herring: Yes. If anything, I think the burden of proof here must be on the people picking against the team with the two best players.
Which is part of the reason why I’m still completely shocked and confused that our projection model thinks so little about the Lakers, as it has for some time. I listened to our podcast the other day, where Neil Paine gave the best explanation he could. But I still couldn’t understand it completely.
I think that’s where we are, though: if Miami wins, it’s largely because of their depth compared to that of the Lakers.
dubin: Yes, I would say if the Heat win, it will be thanks to their 3-point shot, but that shot comes from depth guys.
chris.herring: It’s much easier to imagine LeBron and AD going for a combined 60 or 70 each night, though, and that’s potentially enough.
I was so close to putting Duncan Robinson as my MVP pick.
dre.waters: Miami has six guys who could average double-digit points in this series. And that might really be enough.
chris.herring: Six of me chose Miami. I could also have chosen Robinson, smh.
dubin: I’m interested to see if Robinson has yet another bad game 1 and then hits plus three in the first minute of game 2. Again.
dre.waters: Chris and I are on exactly the same page today … except for Robinson’s pick for MVP. LOL.
I also have heat in six. But that’s mainly because I don’t know if they could beat LeBron in an all or nothing 7 game.
dubin: Sounds weird to say, but I think the biggest players in the series could be Crowder-Herro-Robinson and Green-KCP-Markieff Morris-Alex Caruso-Rondo. Only, who can shoot best from those groups.
chris.herring: We largely avoided the narrative discourse on the Pat Riley / LeBron stuff. I think people will hear enough about it elsewhere. But I want to at least ask you this: How much more would this final win to strengthen LeBron’s legacy?
He called it the busiest season of his career, citing the disappearance of Kobe Bryant and the bubble, which I think we can all understand. I could also imagine that many critics will look at the list they’ve had and say that the Lakers, through no fault of their own, didn’t end up having to play any of last season’s most dominant teams in to win the title.
dubin: I don’t know if it’s their fault that the Clippers and Bucks didn’t take care of the business. If anything, doing it in the bubble is almost more impressive than doing it at home.
chris.herring: I said no fault of them!
dre.waters: I think the better question, considering the point Chris just made, is how would another defeat in the final could damage his legacy?
dubin: Everyone knows that it is better for your legacy to lose before the finals than to lose in the finals.
Jared is right though …
dubin: In all seriousness, the idea that a win or a defeat should change LeBron’s legacy doesn’t make much sense to me. Whatever happens, it won’t wake up a better or worse player the day after the last game of this series. Really, it will only confirm people’s records.
Then again, I said the same thing after the Cavs won the title, and that was the opinion of a minority that day.
chris.herring: There is almost certainly a lot of truth to this. Although I think people raise more questions when you lose the finals as a favorite.
dubin: It reminds me of what happened after the last Super Bowl, when people were finally willing to admit that Andy Reid is one of the best coaches ever, as if that game changed everything.
chris.herring: The strange thing here, as we’ve all said, is that the Lakers are favorites, but we can all take a step back and say that something special happened with Miami. You don’t run post-season like the Heat did, like five-seeded, unless you’re on a mission.
I find it really hard to choose against them and all the things they throw at you, Xs and Os-wise, physicality, etc.
dubin: I can admit it as long as the credit isn’t given to Pat Riley. No, I’ll never get over it.
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