The Lakers and Heat are an NBA Finals matchup with all sorts of historical ramifications and interesting questions. These are the lineup, matchup and strategic issues that will decide a winner.
The NBA Finals are finally here. It’s been a long, strange road, so let’s not bother with a long preamble. Here are the tactical questions tingling my brainwaves as we head into the decisive series of the season.
How do the Lakers matchup up with Dragic and Butler?
How the Lakers will match up with Bam Adebayo isn’t really in question. They’re going to try to survive with Dwight Howard and/or JaVale McGee on him for a few minutes as a time, then use Anthony Davis when it really matters. But the plan for Goran Dragic and Jimmy Butler is a more open question. In the regular-season matchups between these two teams, Dragic was still coming off the bench and spent most of his time being defended by… Alex Caruso and Quinn Cook. Needless to say, that will likely not be the case in the Finals. He’s likely to see Caruso at least some of the time, but the Lakers will also presumably match up with one of Danny Green or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to start.
That means LeBron and whichever of Green/KCP isn’t on Dragic will have to sort out who defends Butler and who defends Duncan Robinson and/or Tyler Herro. It seems extremely hard to believe the Lakers will have LeBron chasing Robinson all over the floor in dribble hand-off and screen actions, so he might actually be defending Butler quite a bit. He spent a decent amount of time on Butler during those regular-season games, but that was also before the Heat had Dragic in the starting lineup, and before they acquired Jae Crowder and slid him into Meyers Leonard’s spot in the lineup.
The way the Lakers’ complementary players have been playing during the playoffs actually allows for LeBron to expend more energy on defense than he has in past playoff series, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on Butler a majority of the time. Working things that way would actually allow the Lakers to throw several different looks at Dragic and/or Herro, who have been their most dynamic off-dribble playmakers during the postseason, with Butler saving his offensive exploits for crunch time more often than not.
How many looks do the Heat throw at LeBron?
The Heat have an advantage not many other teams that have faced this Lakers squad possess: the ability to throw a ton of different looks at the best player in the world, including some that actually have a decent chance at making things moderately more difficult for him.
During the teams’ regular-season matchups, James was largely defended by Jimmy Butler, Derrick Jones Jr., and James Johnson. Johnson is no longer on the team and Jones is no longer in the rotation, but now the Heat have Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala to use on him in addition to Butler. Though he is no longer at the peak of his powers, Iguodala still has the size-length-strength-agility combination to at least make LeBron work a little harder than he’d have to against anyone else. Crowder didn’t have much in the way of success defending LeBron when he was with the Celtics, but he’s at least got the physical capability to not get run over, which is more than you can say about some of the players who have defended LeBron at other times during the playoffs. Butler simply refuses to be out-worked by anyone, and even while working at a relative size disadvantage still possesses the ability to, again, simply make LeBron work just a little bit harder.
In the Second Spectrum era (since 2013-14), nobody has spent more half-court possessions defending James than Butler (1,148), while Iguodala (969) ranks fourth and Crowder (669) ranks ninth. Among the 13 players who have defended him on at least 500 possessions, Butler, Iguodala, and Crowder rank first, third, and fourth in effective field goal percentage allowed on those plays, each holding him to a 50 percent clip or worse despite his out-performing his expected eFG% against all three players. It’s highly unlikely that any of them will manage to shut him down; but they can all make things more difficult, which against LeBron is about all you can ask for.
Can “the others” keep bringing it?
For much of the regular season, the Lakers were a two-man show, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis producing the significant majority of value on offense. The Lakers got below-expectation-level shooting from players like Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma — who were expected to be third- and fourth-wheel offensive contributors — and their half-court offense lagged significantly behind their transition attack.
The defense performed much better thanks to Davis’ full-floor game-wrecking and regular-season LeBron locking in on that end in a way he hadn’t for years, plus attentive and aggressive play from Green, Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, and Avery Bradley, and strong rim protection from JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. In the playoffs, the defense has largely continued right on humming, even without Bradley. AD and LeBron have kept up their level of play, the guards and wings have continued to lock in, and Rajon Rondo has thrown it back to the mid-2000s by hounding ball-handlers and repeatedly picking up steals.
That’s not a surprise. The surprise is the boost LA’s offense has gotten. Their half-court woes have largely fallen by the wayside, and much of that can be attributed to that improved play of Rondo, Caruso, and Howard, and improved shooting from the likes of Caldwell-Pope and Markieff Morris.
Rondo has somewhat stabilized the Lakers from a playmaking standpoint during the minutes where LeBron hits the bench, and he’s run hot enough shooting-wise to be out there with James as well. Caruso still isn’t shooting well, but his defense has helped fuel that transition attack. Howard has hammered teams on the boards. Perennially a mid-30s 3-point shooter, KCP is up in the 40s during this run. The same is true of Morris. If the Lakers can get all of these contributions to continue in the Finals, that would go a long way toward neutralizing what might be Miami’s best defensive weapon: the zone.
Can Miami handle the defensive glass?
The Lakers were a top-five offensive rebounding team during the regular season, and they have for the most part continued to hammer teams on the glass during the playoffs. LA has grabbed the board on 29.7 percent of its missed shots during the postseason, making the Lakers by the far the best offensive rebounding team the Heat have faced thus far. It’s worth noting that the Celtics — who had the exact same offensive rebound rate during the regular season as the Lakers — corralled the ball off the board on 29.4 percent of their misses during the conference finals, which just about matches LA’s overall postseason mark.
Miami’s previous two opponents did not hammer them quite as badly on the offensive glass, with the Pacers getting the offensive board 18.5 percent of the time and the Bucks doing so on 24 percent of their misses. Unlike in those first two series, though, the Heat played a ton of zone defense against the Celtics, which likely contributed to that backslide.
The Lakers have seen a zone defense on only 2.8 percent of their defensive possessions this postseason, per Second Spectrum, but they’ve also yet to face an opponent that featured a heavy dose of zone during the regular season. Miami was the league’s zone-happiest team this year, using it on 11.1 percent of defensive possessions. Against the Celtics, they jacked that rate up to 30.3 percent. Boston saw a zone only slightly more often during the regular season than did LA, so it’s possible the Heat feature it heavily once again in the Finals. If they do, they’ll have to pay additional attention to the backboards, making sure the likes of Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and JaVale McGee don’t take advantage of too many second chances.
Who are the targets on defense?
An under-discussed facet of the Heat’s move to zone defense during the Celtics series is that their man-to-man defense just did not see much in the way of success. It’s not like they went to zone just because they wanted to. Boston was finding openings when Miami played things straight up, and if the Lakers are smart, they can likely do the same.
The strategy involves targeting Miami’s weakest individual defenders but doing so in isolation more often than not. That likely means having guards set screens for LeBron James, hoping he can draw either Goran Dragic or Duncan Robinson into a switch, pull the ball out to clear some space, and — crucially — attack before the Heat can reset themselves to gear up for the new reality. It probably means entrusting Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to run some of those pick and rolls, hoping to get Anthony Davis a switch onto one of the aforementioned targets. Though it’s likely their most dangerous play, it might not be the best idea to run the James-Davis pick and roll over and over again, which would draw Miami’s best defenders into the action and leave the more targetable players away from the ball, where they can more comfortably hide.
On the other end, the Heat should put Dwight Howard in as many screen and roll actions as possible. They surely saw how Dwight got far enough in his own head that he was allowing Jamal Murray easy baskets by being so concentrated on Nikola Jokic, and it’s possible they can bait him into the same kind of behavior when it comes to Bam Adebayo.
If the Lakers use Davis on Bam, then the Heat can target Dwight or JaVale McGee by making them change directions multiple times in space, lifting shooters from the corner to the wing to create easier looks at the rim. (Or they can attack Markieff Morris if the Lakers go small.) They’d also do well to try to get Jimmy Butler some post-ups on Danny Green and/or KCP, where he can use his strength to power through them rather than trying to take them off the dribble from the wing or the top of the key.
Which coach shortens his rotation first, and how does the other respond?
Early in the series against Boston, the Heat kept their nine-man rotation intact. Erik Spoelstra played 11 guys in total during the series, giving Derrick Jones Jr. and Solomon Hill a spin when the Celtics went smaller and he wanted to get some additional athleticism on the court.
It wasn’t until Game 6 when he really pared his rotation all the way down, using just seven players for the most part: Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Bam Adebayo to start, with Tyler Herro and Andre Iguodala off the bench. Hill got all of five minutes, while Kelly Olynyk and Kendrick Nunn didn’t play at all. Olynyk likely has more of a place in this series than he did in the last one given the Lakers’ preference for playing big lineups, but it’s unclear that Nunn, Hill, or Jones will or should get much time.
The Lakers have also used nine or 10 guys for most of their run, thought Frank Vogel did cut Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee out of the rotation entirely for the latter half of the series against the Rockets. We’re likely to see one of the two start against Miami, and the other could possibly get some time off the bench. Either way, they figure to combine for around minutes, with Markieff Morris getting somewhere around the same, then Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, and Kyle Kuzma filling in for anywhere from 15-25 apiece. Does there come a point, though, where Vogel excises either the true bigs or Morris from the rotation and decides he is either all-in on playing big or all-in on going small?
The Heat seemingly have the advantage in a small-ball series given their plethora of wings; if they can dictate the action by going in that direction, it’ll be interesting to see how the Lakers respond. Do they sacrifice what is potentially their biggest advantage (the offensive glass) to match the Heat small-for-small or trust that Howard and/or McGee can handle themselves in space?