chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Well, this NBA season that went inside a bubble and is on the cusp of lasting an entire calendar year officially begins its Finals round tonight. Lakers-Heat is almost certainly not the matchup any of us thought we would get. But it’s one full of storylines for any number of reasons — and one that feels like it could honestly go either way, given how well Miami has played against higher-seeded competition throughout the postseason.
What are you all most interested in seeing as the Finals kick off tonight? What strikes you as the biggest key in all of this?
dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’m a pretty big nerd, so I’m most interested in seeing how the teams align themselves defensively. Does Bam Adebayo start on Anthony Davis, or do they try to hide him for a bit? Does Jae Crowder guard Davis or LeBron James? And how do the Lakers deploy LeBron, Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope against Goran Dragić, Jimmy Butler and Duncan Robinson/Tyler Herro. I can’t imagine L.A. wants LeBron chasing Robinson all night or dealing with as many ball-screens as Dragić uses, so I imagine he’ll actually spend quite a bit of time on Jimmy.
chris.herring: The matchups and Xs and Os are fascinating in this series, aren’t they? And even the stuff we’ll see at the beginning will likely just be to start.
dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): In terms of matchups, I’m interested to see how the Heat try to slow down LeBron as well. They brought in guys like Crowder and Andre Iguodala specifically for a series like this … so how will they use them defensively?
I imagine both of them will spend most of their time on defense guarding LeBron.
dubin: A big swing in this series will be whether the Heat decide to use Crowder on LeBron or AD. Davis tends to do better against big guys, so it could make some sense to have Crowder on him, but the Heat also probably don’t want to have Jimmy spend his entire night dealing with LeBron.
chris.herring: Not that it has an immediate tie-in, but remember that clip of LeBron at the free-throw line showing frustration when he saw that Kawhi Leonard was coming back into the game to guard him? To your point, though, it’s a really exhausting sort of assignment to guard someone of the caliber of LeBron or even Butler for a whole game. Expect to see different folks with those responsibilities over the course of the night.
One thing I’m oddly intrigued by here is how much the offensive rebounding — something that’s been deemphasized in recent years — may matter in this series. The Lakers often play two traditional bigs at a time, and the Heat just hustle their butts off frequently. The zone defense Miami plays becomes a little more risky for that reason, too.
dubin: The Celtics grabbed the offensive board on almost 30 percent of their misses last series, far higher than either of the Heat’s two previous playoff opponents. The fact that Miami played so much zone definitely contributed to that, and if they go heavy zone against the Lakers, they could be inviting some trouble there.
That said, the whole point of the zone is to cut off access to the paint, and that might be the Heat’s best chance of winning the series. If they can turn it into a 3-point shooting contest, I feel like that’s really good for them.
chris.herring: Very good point.
dre.waters: On the other hand, though, if Miami beats the Lakers rebounding on the offensive end, they definitely have the shooting from deep to make them pay. Butler, Crowder, Iguodala, Dragić, Robinson and Herro are all shooting over 34 percent from 3-point range.
chris.herring: The Lakers’ outside shooting has never really been their strong point, although that late hot streak from Bron was how they ultimately put away the Nuggets.
chris.herring: This would be such a horrible time for either of them to regress to the mean.
dubin: On the other hand, it would be a nice time for Danny Green to progress to the mean.
chris.herring: A complicating factor in trying to make sense of this matchup: They last played each other in December, almost 10 months ago.
Those were the good ol’ days.
dre.waters: That feels like so long ago. A lot has changed for Miami since then.
Erik Spoelstra is a fantastic coach, and if anything, this run has proved just how great he is. But the Heat were a pretty poor second-half team over the course of the season, while the Lakers were relatively solid in that regard. Miami dropped an NBA-high 18 games in which it held a lead of at least 10 points.
Not sure whether it’s a focus thing, or simply that the Heat change defenses a lot midgame, which might turn the faucet on or off for the opponent. But it will be interesting to see if they can finish the job if and when they take leads against L.A.
dubin: I wonder how many of those came pre-hiatus and how many came in the bubble. Feelings aren’t numbers, but it does feel like they’ve been the team making the comebacks in the playoffs, not the team allowing opponents back in it.
chris.herring: Definitely feels like there’s some truth to that, including in the Eastern Conference clincher. I’ve picked Miami in this series — partly because of how well they’ve played against what I perceive to be better competition and partly off of feel.
dre.waters: I actually picked Miami as well. In terms of play outside their best player(s), they’ve been far more consistent to me. And, like Chris said, it was against better competition – the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics.
dubin: I feel like we could have said “the Lakers have the two best players in the series but the [opponent] has the next five or six” about every series L.A. has been in so far. How much do we think that matters in a series where LeBron and AD are probably going to play around 40 minutes a night anyway?
chris.herring: I am at least slightly worried about the Heat’s ability to produce steady offense against this Laker defense. So much of it will depend on what sorts of looks Adebayo gets as a shooter and passer. And much of that will depend on the Lakers’ defensive approach, which, as Jared mentioned, will likely involve Davis for long stretches.
Jared, you didn’t pick Miami, too, did you?
dubin: Nobody has asked me to make a definitive pick, unless this right here counts. I think I would lean slightly toward the Lakers, but largely because I think picking against LeBron is kind of stupid and not because I think the Lakers are actually better.
dubin: (I’m not calling you guys stupid, in case it sounded that way. I just feel silly picking Not LeBron.)
It’s always hard picking against LeBron, but somebody had to do it, right?
chris.herring: Yeah. If anything, I think the burden of proof here has to be on folks picking against the team with the two best players.
Which is part of why I’m still completely shocked and confused that our projection model thinks so little of the Lakers, as it has for a while now. I listened to our podcast from the other day, on which Neil Paine gave the best explanation of it that he could. But I still couldn’t make complete sense of it.
I do think that’s where we are, though: If Miami wins, it will largely be because of its depth compared to the depth of the Lakers.
dubin: Yeah, I would say if the Heat win, it will be due to their 3-point shooting — but that shooting is coming from the depth guys.
chris.herring: It is much easier to imagine LeBron and AD going for 60 or 70 combined each night, though, and that potentially being enough.
I was so close to putting Duncan Robinson as my MVP choice.
dre.waters: Miami has six guys who could average double-digit points in this series. And that really could be enough.
chris.herring: I picked Miami in six. I might as well have picked Robinson, smh.
dubin: I’m interested to see if Robinson has yet another bad Game 1 and then hits multiple threes inside the first minute of Game 2. Again.
dre.waters: Chris and I are on the exact same page today … except for the Robinson for MVP pick. LOL.
I have the Heat in six as well. But that’s mostly because I don’t know if they could top LeBron in an all-or-nothing Game 7.
dubin: It feels weird to say, but I think the most important players in the series might be Crowder-Herro-Robinson and Green-KCP-Markieff Morris-Alex Caruso-Rondo. Just, who gets better shooting from those groups.
chris.herring: We’ve largely avoided the narrative talk of the Pat Riley/LeBron stuff. I think people will hear enough of that elsewhere. But I do want to at least ask this one: How much more would this Finals win bolster LeBron’s legacy?
He’s called it the most challenging season of his career, citing the passing of Kobe Bryant and the bubble, which I think we can all understand. I could also imagine that a lot of critics will look at the slate they’ve had and say that the Lakers, through no fault of their own, didn’t end up having to play any of the most dominant teams from this past season in order to win the title.
dubin: I don’t know that it’s their fault that the Clippers and Bucks didn’t take care of business. If anything, doing so in the bubble is almost more impressive than doing it at home.
chris.herring: I said through no fault of their own!
dre.waters: I think the better question, considering the point Chris just made, is how would another Finals loss hurt his legacy?
dubin: Everybody knows it’s better for your legacy to lose before the Finals than lose in the Finals.
Jared’s right though…
dubin: In all seriousness, the idea that a win or loss should change LeBron’s legacy doesn’t make that much sense to me. No matter what happens, he is not going to wake up a better or worse player the day after the final game of this series. Really, it’s just going to confirm people’s priors.
Then again, I said the same thing after the Cavs won their title, and that was a minority opinion on that day.
chris.herring: There’s almost certainly a lot of truth to that. Though I do think people raise more questions when you lose the Finals as a favorite.
dubin: It reminds me of what happened after the most recent Super Bowl, when people were finally willing to admit that Andy Reid is one of the best coaches ever, as if the one game changed everything.
chris.herring: The weird thing here, as we’ve all said, is that the Lakers are favored, but we can all step back and tell that something special has taken place with Miami. You don’t roll through the postseason the way the Heat have, as a five-seed, unless you’re on a mission.
I just find it really tough to pick against them and all the stuff they throw at you, Xs and Os-wise, physicality-wise, etc.
dubin: I can admit that as long as the credit is not given to Pat Riley. No, I will never get over it.
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