The Los Angeles Lakers enter the NBA Finals as prohibitive favorites, with many sportsbooks listing them as high as -450 favorites over the Miami Heat. Then again, Miami’s entered their last two series as underdogs and emerged victorious. As such, the Lakers know they have to be on their game to pick up another Larry O’Brien Trophy, because the Heat always find a way to ask a number of questions of their opponents.
Here, we’ll look at three keys for the Lakers that will be crucial for them to take a championship home to L.A. from the Disney Bubble. There are some things that go without explanation — like they’ll be better if guys around LeBron and Anthony Davis hit shots — but there are some matchups and focal points beyond that which could tip this series in favor of the Lakers.
1. Anthony Davis needs to be better than Bam Adebayo
Anthony Davis has been excellent this postseason, adapting his game to the needs of the Lakers based on their opponent. That meant battling the size in Portland’s frontcourt, playing small-ball five against the Rockets, and attacking as a power forward against the Nuggets. In the Finals, he will face his stiffest competition yet, at least in terms of versatility on both ends of the floor, in the form of Bam Adebayo. The 23-year-old Heat big man has emerged as a star in his own right, and can post Davis-like stat lines as evidenced by his 32 points, 14 rebounds, and five assists in the series-clinching Game 6 win over Boston.
To this point, Miami has seen its top trio of Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, and Goran Dragic match or out-perform their star counterparts from the Bucks and Celtics, but the Lakers present a much greater challenge with James and Davis. The Davis-Adebayo matchup has the chance to be a pivot point in this series on either side, with Davis needing to find a way to consistently dominate in this series against a formidable matchup. Davis has been fantastic this playoffs, but does have his lulls and at times has been too willing to hoist contested jump shots in the midrange. Being consistently aggressive and assertive against Adebayo is important because if you can get Adebayo off the floor with foul trouble — which, to his credit, he’s usually very good at avoiding — the Lakers will have a significant advantage.
No player on the Heat is more impactful to their team success than Adebayo, as they simply don’t have an adequate replacement behind him on the bench. Kelly Olynyk can provide shooting but is a major drop off on defense, while Andre Iguodala played “center” in small-ball lineups against the Celtics, but takes away the threat in the pick-and-roll game offensively along with giving up rebounding. And besides, while going small with Iguodala has its benefits, doing it against a gigantic Lakers frontcourt has serious drawbacks. When Adebayo’s on the floor in these playoffs, Miami has a +8.2 net rating. That drops to a -3.9 net rating when he sits, which is by far the biggest difference among Miami’s main rotation players.
The Lakers have the best two players in this series in theory, but they have to play as such for them to win. The biggest opportunity for the Heat to close that gap is in the Adebayo-Davis matchup, and it’s incumbent on Davis to win that battle and do what he can to frustrate Miami’s do-everything big on both ends of the floor.
2. Beware of the fourth quarter Heat
The Lakers have cruised to the Finals in 15 games, dropping only one game in each series, but they’ve had some close calls down the stretch against both the Rockets and Nuggets. Miami has been, by far, the NBA’s best fourth quarter team and the Lakers will have to execute better down the stretch to avoid letting some of those close games tilt in favor of the Heat.
One thing Miami has done extremely well in fourth quarters is turn opponents over, maybe best evidenced by their Game 2 comeback against Boston in which Butler had a pair of critical late steals that led to fast break buckets in a 106-101 come from behind win. The Lakers have had turnover issues of their own in the final quarter, with a turnover rate of 18 percent in the fourth. The only team in this postseason with a higher turnover rate in the fourth quarter are the Celtics at 18.8 percent, thanks in part to what the Heat were able to do to speed them up and force them into mistakes late in games.
The Lakers will have to be better with the ball in fourth quarters of close games because Miami excels at forcing live-ball turnovers and converting them into immediate points. Their ball pressure is tremendous and guys like Butler, Iguodala, Adebayo, and Jae Crowder all have excellent hands to get in passing lanes for deflections and steals.
On the other end, the Lakers have to be ready for a diverse attack from the Heat and adapt coverages based on what they’re doing in that specific game, rather than relying on tape or previous experience. Butler is the obvious focal point, as he’s had some spectacular closing quarters this postseason, but Miami has five players averaging five or more points per fourth quarter this postseason in Butler, Dragic, Adebayo, and Tyler Herro. Those three guards all can become the primary ball-handler depending on who has the hot hand and the favorable matchup, and as such, you have to adjust your defense to them. They also attack the basket relentlessly, putting stress on the defense for kickouts, lobs, and dropoffs when defenders collapse, and are tremendous at drawing contact to the tune of nearly nine free throw attempts per fourth quarter. Discipline on shooters, strong closeouts, and timely rotations are all put to the test by the Heat, and you can bet that’s a focal point for Frank Vogel in preparations.
3. Attack the mismatches, and be ready for the zone
The Heat have some incredible offensive lineups, but their best offensive perimeter players are also their weakest defenders. As such, they typically try to keep one of Crowder or Iguodala on the floor to bring a bit more defensive balance whenever they have a combination of Dragic, Robinson, and Herro out there together. Those three are solid team defenders, but aren’t good one-on-one, on-ball defenders. Against Denver, LeBron relentlessly hunted Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. when they were out there to a great deal of success.
The Nuggets, to an almost frustrating degree, gave James whatever switch he wanted, and it’ll be interesting to see if Miami tries to reject switches when James calls for a pick from a fellow perimeter player to get Dragic, Herro, or Robinson on him — or Olynyk and Meyers Leonard any time Miami possibly goes to their bench bigs. The Celtics did this a lot, and were able to get Robinson in particular in foul trouble by going at him, as he has a tendency to make too much contact while trying to contain drives.
The adjustment to the Lakers aggressively hunting their guards in switches is for Miami to deploy the 2-3 zone we saw them use against the Celtics to great success. If the Lakers, and LeBron especially, begin targeting certain mismatches, expect the Heat to at least sprinkle in zone looks to throw them off of rhythm — I’d be surprised if they play as much zone as they showed against Boston, but they’ll play some. As such, L.A. better be putting in at least some work on zone offense, flashing Davis to the free throw line and attacking the seams quickly off of passes. If they can adapt to zone looks and take advantage of soft spots with Davis and their excellent cutters like Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma when he gets the ball in that pocket, they can force Miami out of their zone and back into man-to-man, where James can again do what he does best.