Before we dive into the breakdown, I will quickly mention that Jack Pilgrim and I will be hosting a Live Blog for Game 1 of the NBA Finals to see what fan interest is like. For me personally, it’s been since March since I’ve participated in a KSR Live Blog, so I am extremely excited. We’ll have more details regarding that tomorrow. Game 1 tips off on Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. EST on ABC.
Good evening, folks. It’s been an eventful journey, but we’ve finally made it to the Finals. Let’s talk NBA Bubble.
John Calipari couldn’t have curated a more effective recruiting pitch for his basketball program than what is happening down in the Orlando Bubble. Four former Kentucky Wildcats–two from each team–will take the court in the upcoming NBA Finals matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, along with a head coach and a legendary executive who also have taken paths through Lexington to achieve great success in hoops. But despite Kentucky’s historic eight NCAA National Championships and a legacy of winning that extends all the way back to the 1930s, only a handful–a tiny hand, at that–can stake a claim in helping win an NBA Finals.
One of them though, coincidentally enough, is Pat Riley, the legendary executive referenced above. Riley is now the brains behind the current construction of the Miami Heat and has presided over championship runs that stretch across four decades and multiple franchises. The one-time Wildcat only averaged 5.0 points and 16.1 minutes per game during his Finals run as a player with the Lakers in 1972 against the New York Knicks, but it’s been his front office tenure where he’s contributed the most to winning. Riley’s off-court moves have made him far more successful than anything he ever did on the court, totaling five titles as a head coach, two more as an executive, and *just* the one as a player.
If Riley is the most impactful former Wildcat on the managerial side, Cliff Hagan would be the most dominant to ever suit up and actually play in an NBA Finals–and that was all the way back in 1958. Hagan helped play spoiler in the early stages of the Boston Celtics-Bill Russell dynasty, leading the St. Louis Hawks to a 4-2 series win while averaging over 25 points and 9.7 rebounds in those six games during the ’58 Finals. Since then, coming few and far between, other Kentucky greats such as Kevin Grevey (13 ppg in 1978 Finals), Tayshaun Prince (10 ppg in 2004 Finals), and Rajon Rondo (9.3 ppg in 2008 Finals) can say they made a notable contribution to their respective team taking home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. But all three of them were in the first two or three years of their NBA careers and considered fourth or fifth options on offense.
No matter who wins the 2020 NBA Finals, a former Kentucky Wildcat will play a series-shifting role in this matchup. Bam Adebayo of Miami and Anthony Davis of L.A. are two of the four best players on either side and bonafide All-Stars. Heat rookie Tyler Herro has proven over and over that he can step up and alter the momentum of a game with big shots. The Lakers’ Rajon Rondo is eye-balling a second title while playing his best basketball of the last couple seasons. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel (once a Rick Pitino pupil) has done a hell of a job getting two superstars to buy into his gameplan. Riley and his slicked-back hair will be lurking in the background throughout the TV broadcast. You aren’t going to be able to watch more than a minute of the Finals without some mention of Kentucky basketball.
Pat Riley is unfazed. pic.twitter.com/auztsR6NTU
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) September 28, 2020
With that being said, there is plenty to love about this series from the perspective of a member of the Big Blue Nation. Davis is gunning for his first title after an uneventful stretch in New Orleans while Adebayo and Herro are hoping to lead the first-ever fifth seed to a championship. But there are so many mini-games that will be going on inside the actual game itself: who matches up against Davis and Bam? Can the Lakers break Miami’s zone defense?
The Lakers have the clear two best players in this series in Davis and LeBron James. After them, Adebayo and Jimmy Butler are comfortably behind as the third and fourth-best players. In that sense, the series gives off David and Goliath-type vibes. But while L.A. has the advantage in star power, you could argue that Miami’s next four players after Adebayo and Butler are all better than anyone for the Lakers; Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, and maybe Jae Crowder are objectively better players right now than Danny Green (who always shows up in the Finals), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, or Kyle Kuzma. The Lakers have the edge up top, but the Heat are more talented going down the roster.
Let’s breakdown what I believe will be some of the main talking points throughout the series.
Who will guard Anthony Davis? What about Bam Adebayo?
While I mostly expect Jimmy Butler to start out Game 1 defending LeBron James, I can’t say the same for who will be checking Anthony Davis or Bam Adebayo. Let’s start with Davis.
Against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, Davis and the Lakers abandoned the small-ball lineups that allowed them to punish the Houston Rockets in the round before. After all but removing Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee from the rotation against Houston, the 7-footers were plugged right back in for the WCF and that will likely be the case to start the Finals. Howard, in particular, played well against Denver’s All-Star center Nikola Jokic and received the bulk of his minutes playing next to Davis. If Howard is inserted back into the Lakers starting lineup and Davis stays at the four, expect Miami’s Jae Crowder to check Davis initially.
The best bet for the Heat would be to keep Adebayo on Howard with Crowder of Davis, and there a few reasons why. First off, Howard has been a monster on the glass the last few games, and Crowder–who is a stout post defender at 6-foot-6–won’t be able to contain him at all. Second, Adebayo needs to stay out of foul trouble for as long as possible, something that will be much more difficult to do guarding Davis instead of Howard. With Crowder guarding Davis, it keeps Adebayo patrolling the paint and in position to help off of Howard. Plus, Miami doesn’t want Adebayo exhausting himself on defense trying to keep up with Davis if the latter isn’t doing the same on the other end.
Or will they just guard each other?
I’m sure it’ll happen on more than one occasion, but Adebayo and Davis going head-to-head all series long doesn’t make much sense for either side. Davis prefers to create his offense by starting outside of the paint and closer to the perimeter, which Crowder is much more capable of handling than fending off Howard on the boards. This isn’t to say Crowder is a “Davis-stopper” (because that species doesn’t exist) but it makes more sense to double Davis whenever he attacks, forcing the ball out of his hands with Adebayo lurking on the backline to help, as opposed to constant one-on-ones from a perennial offensive talent.
Davis is pouring in points at will right now, coming off 31.2 per game against the Nuggets. It might not matter who Miami sticks on him; double-teams will be necessary. The good news for the Heat is that whoever ends up guarding Davis or Howard (or even LeBron), they can deploy a switch-all defensive tactic thanks to the abilities of Crowder, Butler, Adebayo, and Andre Iguodala. Maybe Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra elects to trot out big men Kelly Olynyk (who played just 40 minutes in the ECF) or Myers Leonard (who has registered just nine minutes in these playoffs) to help deal with the Lakers height? Rust aside, they would provide some length in the post. But Miami has rolled out the same starting lineup since the opening game of the postseason and switching that up now might not be the best idea.
My final guess for matchups on defense?
Butler –> James
Crowder –> Davis
Adebayo –> Howard
Anthony Davis and his rebounding woes
Through the final four games of the WCF against Denver, Anthony Davis couldn’t buy a rebound. He went entire halves without recording a single board and finished all four with single-digit rebounding numbers. The inclusion of Howard into the starting lineup surely played a role in this, but Davis’ efforts on the glass were surprisingly weak. In the series against the Nuggets, he averaged just 6.2 rebounds and went three games without hauling in more than five. I’m here to say that we shouldn’t worry too much over this.
With Davis and Howard on the floor at the same time, the Lakers have actually been far more productive on both ends of the court than when Howard sits and Davis is on. While it comes at the cost of personal statistics for Davis, L.A. is simply better when the two of them play together–at least they were against Denver. But Howard hogs the rebounds, almost to the point where Davis doesn’t even bother going after them. More often than not, he’d find himself tucked away on Paul Millsap or Michael Porter Jr., who were standing stationary in a corner. Instead of fighting Howard or LeBron for loose boards, Davis was oftentimes leaking out ahead of the break to get into prime position down the floor. To their credit, it mostly worked.
On the other end of the glass, Davis’ offensive rebounding percentage dipped all the way down to 1.1 percent when he shared the floor with Howard in the WCF, compared to 5.2 percent when he was by himself. Some of this can be explained by Davis being more willing to shoot from the midrange area right now as opposed to attacking the basket, but these have been beneficial shots for him. 50 percent of Davis’ total shots in the playoffs have come from the midrange and he’s hitting them at an insanely impressive 51 percent clip. 42 percent of his shots during the regular season came at the rim. That number has dropped to 35 percent in the playoffs.
But hey, he’s shooting it efficiently (over 57 percent during the playoffs) and it’s making him an unstoppable force on offense. The biggest question will be whether or not he can penetrate the Heat zone.
Miami’s zone defense
Miami’s 2-3 zone defense gave the Boston Celtics nightmares in the Eastern Conference Finals, fluctuating between that and man-to-man and frustrating a typically reliable Celtics offense. Can the Heat replicate that same kind of extreme success against the Lakers? Probably not, but they’ll at least try. Miami found relative prosperity when they first normalized the zone against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks earlier in the playoffs, but the Lakers have two Giannis-caliber players.
The Heat will live by one expression: let someone other than LeBron or AD beat you. The zone defense will try to do just that. Packing the paint against LeBron James is one of the only ways to slow him down and Miami’s zone has shown it can at least limit penetration. Making LeBron beat you as a passer instead of a scorer might not be the advantage one thinks it is, but an open corner 3 from Alex Caruso is much more acceptable than a LeBron James layup.
However, the zone’s toughest task won’t be defending the kick-out corner 3 to Caruso, it’ll be boxing out the Laker bigs on a potential miss. Adebayo will be responsible for keeping the Heat from bleeding out possible second-chance points. If Miami doesn’t feed minutes to Olynyk or Leonard, it’ll be a tough order for him.
What to expect from Tyler Herro
Call him an X-Factor, Wild Card, or whatever you’d like, just make sure you mention the rookie when talking about impact players in this series.
Tyler Herro has still yet to play a postseason game without scoring at least 11 points. He’s dropped two 20-plus outings and highlighted his first trip to the playoffs with a 37-point explosion in Game 4 against the Celtics. He broke endless rookie records along the way, joining conversations that include Hall of Famers such as Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson. It’s not just outside shooting, either, where Herro is strutting his stuff; he possesses a fancy layup package and exceptional pick-and-roll chemistry with Adebayo.
I would expect the Lakers to target him (along with Dragic and Robinson) on the defensive end, considering the Heat will try to switch almost everything, and it will create some mismatches if he finds himself bodying up against Davis or LeBron. But Herro plays sound team defense and never lets his energy levels dip below the expectation. Miami is 7-1 this postseason when he scores at least 15 points. A 20-point game from Herro is sure to swing any tight matchup in favor of the Heat. Just one of those performances from Herro can change the entire series.
What about Rajon Rondo?
To a lesser extent than Herro, Lakers point guard Rajon Rondo will play a pivotal role for his squad. While “Playoff Rondo” is a real thing, it can be a bit exaggerated at times. He’s posting averages of 9.1 points and 7.2 rebounds through 10 playoff games and is shooting nearly 45 percent from beyond the arc, but comes with his side effects.
Rondo controls the ball more than any other Laker not named LeBron James or Anthony Davis, yet boasts a worse turnover percentage than either of them. His 3-point shooting has been a surprise, but nearly every single one of them has come uncontested, a look that Miami will openly give him. Most notably, Rondo’s presence kills the Laker defense to the tune of 14.2 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, per Cleaning the Glass, easily the worst figure of any L.A. rotation player.
What he does bring to the table is an innate ability to locate the Lakers’ two best players. Multiple times per game you can expect Rondo to place a perfectly-timed lob pass to Davis or LeBron (or even Howard or McGee). There were spurts against Denver where his on-ball defense flipped the momentum of the game, too. He’s not necessarily an overwhelming negative, but he’s had a difficult time coming out as a positive for L.A. In that line of thinking, he’s probably more of a “Wild Card” than Herro is.
Prediction: Lakers in 5
There have been several times over the last 48 hours where my heart has told me to pick the Miami Heat; my mind just won’t allow it.
The Lakers have rolled straight through the first three rounds, taking all three series in five games. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are playing on a different level right now and a Lakers title has felt pre-destined since the Bubble concept began all the way back in June. I have a tough time betting against LeBron-led teams in situations such as these: where his team is an overpowering favorite. He’s locked in on a path for his fourth Finals trophy and I can’t talk myself into this Miami Heat as the ones to stop him. So I’m going with L.A. to take this series in five games, as well.
It’s not the historic Lakers-Celtics matchup many wanted, but there is no denying that this is going to be entertaining. One of Anthony Davis or Bam Adebayo is going to have a real shot at taking home a Finals MVP award. This feels like a sign of things to come for the NBA, too. Davis and Adebayo won’t be going anywhere anytime soon and there is a slew of up-and-coming ‘Cats hungry to join them.