It’s not the situation anyone envisioned for the NBA Finals when the 2019-20 season began last October, but the championship round is finally here.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat open the NBA Finals in the Disney World bubble Wednesday night (9 p.m. ET, ABC). The matchup is one most observers likely didn’t consider at the beginning of the season, or even when games restarted in July after the COVID-19 pandemic shut the league down for four months.
Still, there are plenty of juicy story lines to make the series worth watching.
After leading the Lakers past the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets in five games each, LeBron James meets his former team with the title on the line. James helped guide the Heat to four consecutive Finals appearances from 2011-14, including championships in 2012 and 2013.
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Miami is back in the Finals for the first time since James left. The Heat are underdogs in the series, but they’ve proven throughout the playoffs they will not back down from anyone. After dispatching the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics, coach Erik Spoelstra will have his team prepared.
Heat president Pat Riley badly wants to add another championship to his résumé, and his own past is a major subplot in the pursuit. Riley coached the Showtime-era Lakers to four titles in the 1980s.
Who will strike first and take Game 1? Here are three major keys to watch as the NBA Finals begin:
Men in the middle
The matchup between Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo could be the most important of the series. Davis has been dominant thus far in the playoffs, but the rising star Adebayo will be his toughest test. Adebayo has the size and strength to contend with Davis inside, plus the quickness and versatility to follow Davis outside when he stretches the floor for the Lakers. Adebayo helped limit MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second round. How much success he has against Davis will be a huge factor in determining if the Heat can pull off the upset in the Finals.
In the zone
Miami’s zone defense totally flummoxed Boston at times during the Eastern Conference finals. Can it do the same against a Los Angeles squad that should be better equipped to combat it? Davis has the shooting touch and passing ability to exploit the soft spots in the middle of the zone. And if the Lakers can get consistent 3-point shooting, especially from the corners, they can prevent the Heat from hiding their weaker defenders.
We’ve marveled all postseason about James’ ability to still dominate in his 17th season at 35 years old. Miami has plenty of defenders to send at James in Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala, but it will be a matter of limiting his impact. James has been content at times during the playoffs to let Davis handle most of the heavy lifting before taking over when necessary. The extent to which James can control the tempo and be the Lakers’ closer will be a deciding factor.
Follow Matt Eppers on Twitter @meppers_.