Bubble Ball really is different. The Miami Heat, a pretty solid team, has thoroughly dispatched two teams, who seemed much better on paper. Can they do it again? The honest answer is I don’t see it but I didn’t see them smacking around the Bucks, so what do I know? Generally, Vegas agrees with this take. Odds makers already have the Lakers as five-point favorites in Game 1 and the general bend seems to be in favor of LeBron James and Los Angeles. Putting all that aside, let’s take a look at this Finals and see if I can somehow convince myself that the Heat can win again…
Bubble Ball in retrospect and the Heat
Going into the Bubble, we noted that there were a few items that helped teams in the strike-shortened season of 1998-99 that could apply today: (a) great coaches helped even more than usual and (b) avoiding older players who cratered after the layoff. The Heat have had great coaching. Erik Spoelstra is an accomplished coach and employed a nasty zone that has prevented a lot of the interior stuff that Giannis and Kemba Walker usually thrived on.
The “old guy” observation didn’t necessarily hold totally true. The oldest star, LeBron James, has been pretty damn good in the Bubble but, as has been noted by John Hollinger and others, the Heat have been conditioning studs in the second half of games. Part of that is the “Heat Way” of great conditioning (going back to the Pat Riley years) and the other is youth on the roster of Bam Adebayo (age 22), Duncan Robinson (age 25), and Tyler Herro (age 20), who can run forever.
How much have the Heat outperformed expectations?
The sample sizes are small but here’s how the key Heat players have done in the playoffs versus the regular season in advanced stats:
The advanced stats confirm the eye test for the most part. Dragic and Robinson have been a bit better and Butler and Crowder a little worse. The real action is with Adebayo. Bam has gone from star to superstar and Herro has turned from average/below-average to a pretty good player. Adebayo scoring and playing defense like peak Alonzo Mourning in a killer zone is a nice thing to have. Herro has become a good offensive player and has prevented some of the perimeter droughts that the Heat have had in the past.
The Lakers and Heat haven’t played since December 13, 2019. The Lakers won that game in a close affair but that was almost a year ago and Herro didn’t know how to shoot then (3-12). The Lakers also beat the Heat badly in November but that’s even less relevant. I wouldn’t take much predictive stock in either game.
The Lakers Big Two
The Heat’s big problem is that the two best players in the Finals are both on the Lakers in LeBron and Anthony Davis. As deep as the Heat are, things tend to come down to the best players in the Finals. The Heat’s zone is tough and stops drives so effectively but Giannis and the Celtics didn’t have bigs who could shoot well enough to puncture it (Brook Lopez could shoot but was too slow to get around Adebayo).
The rest of the Lakers squad is fairly pedestrian except for Rajon Rondo, who has played in the playoffs like peak Celtic Rondo for some reason. And it’s not just streak shooting. The Lakers defense has been significantly better with Rondo on the floor (3.0 DBM in the playoffs). There is obvious chance of a regression for Rondo but he has had other spurts of being really good in the playoffs (see 2016-17 with the Bulls).
Who is better AD or LBJ?
This doesn’t really matter and they are damn close but I still think LBJ is the better player. He is able to create shots and offense from any spot on the floor at 35. It’s fairly amazing (he also has a slightly higher BPM and VORP than AD for what that’s worth and AD leads in WS and PER by a little). In the end, both players are significantly better than anyone on Miami (no disrespect to Bam or Butler). The current Lakers, like the Shaq-Kobe Lakers are a two-man team with solid role players. It’s not a satisfying distribution of talent but it works. Expect Frank Vogel to keep one of them playing on the court at almost all times this round.
Match Ups to Watch
Adebayo D v. the Glitz: Bam will be playing the center of that great zone but he will be meeting AD and LeBron in the paint. If Davis and LBJ can dish effectively (and finish effectively), that will take a bite out of Miami’s team. I suspect that LeBron and Davis will be able to do better with this situation than Giannis did. It will be also interesting to see if Dwight Howard and Javale McGee can curtail Adebayo on offense. That might be difficult. Adebayo is good enough on the perimeter to give them a hard time, even if they slow down his post ups.
Rajon v. Dragic: The two older PGs who are playing better than expected will be interesting. Dragic’s size gave Kemba Walker all kinds of fits. Rondo is a little bigger but usually can’t shoot. Normally, the nod would go to Goran here, as he’s been a consistently better player the last few years. It’s hard to think Rondo can continue to be this good.
Herro Time: As good as Herro has been, the Lakers non-descript role players like Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope seem suited to staying with him and Robinson on defense.
Butler Time: The Lakers do lack a natural match up for Jimmy Butler. Danny Green will get some time (as will LBJ) but the Heat’s best chance to win this series is for Butler to get really hot. He hasn’t been really good since early in the Bucks series. He was solid in the Celtics series but shot poorly (.432% and .167% from three). Expect Spoelstra to try to isolate him a bit more against the Lakers.
Most Similar Historical Match Up
I’m wracking my brain for an analogous match up where a decent team matched up against a powerhouse. The closest I could come up with was the 1966-67 Finals, where the 76ers played, loaded with talent (Wilt, Greer, Cunningham, Walker) and went 68-13. They met the Warriors who were only 44-37 (though they were actually a one seed in the West). In addition, we have the similarity that the Warriors, were Wilt’s old team, rebuilding on the fly, to meet their star again with youngsters Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond.
It’s not an exact match. Barry was a bigger star than anyone on the current Heat (relatively speaking) and the older 76ers were more dominant than these Lakers (relative to the league as well) but the star meeting his former squad angle does fit. In that case, the heavily favored 76ers won 4-2, which was closer than it seemed it would be on paper.
Title Winners with Fewest Wins
For Heat Fans, here is the (very short) list of title teams who pulled won titles without winning 50 games:
-1994-95: Houston Rockets (47-35) beat Orlando Magic (57-25) 4-0: The late season trade for Clyde Drexler made the Rockets better than a 47-win team but the upset is still astounding.
-1977-78: Washington Bullets (44-38) beat Seattle SuperSonics (47-35) 4-3: Yeesh the late 1970s were really a malaise. Everyone wanted a rematch between Dr. J and Bill Walton but Walton got hurt and Philly blew it against Washington. Bullets and Sonics might’ve been better than their records but that Finals feels like a 4/5 first round game in retrospect.
-1974-75: Golden State Warriors (48-34) beat Washington Bullets (60-22) 4-0: GS was better than its record but this was an upset on par with the Rockets/Magic. The games were actually quite close but peak Rick Barry dominated, hairweave and all.
-1968-69: Boston Celtics (48-34) beat Los Angeles Lakers (55-27) 4-3: We covered this a few months ago but the Celtics had the better SRS. This was a slight surprise but not a real upset.
It’s hard to bet against the Miami Heat because they haven’t played any bad games so far but I still don’t see the path to a title. The Lakers’ talent differential is just too big. The Lakers’ strength, LBJ and Davis, are exactly where they need to be to hurt the Heat. I’ve consistently been wrong about Miami, so Heat fans can take solace in that. Prediction: Lakers win 4-2.