Sports Writer and Analyst. Occasionally, I will write about other topics.
Despite the Miami Heat's playoff success, Anthony Davis and Lebron James will prove to be too much for the Heat.
The Miami Heat's ascension in the 2020 playoffs has been admirable. The Heat have shown again that they are arguably the smartest franchise in all of Basketball. However, that all gets put into perspective after they lose to the Lakers in the 2020 NBA finals.
It would be remiss not to discuss the amazing job the Heat has done getting to the NBA Finals. Instead, they have done an amazing job putting their roster together under the radar of many NBA franchises. They did it without depending on signing players during free agency periods. Even the Los Angeles Lakers, many teams thought that the Lakers could not make it again to the NBA finals or even beat the Houston Rockets.
The last time a team that was not a top 4 seed in their conference made it to the NBA finals was in 1998-99 season when the 8th seed New York Knicks made it to the NBA finals. However, the Knicks had the misfortune in the regular season to have their two leading scorers, Patrick Ewing and Latrell Sprewell, miss 12 and 13 games. The Knicks again were unlucky after Patrick Ewing could not play in the NBA finals. The Knicks might have won a championship.
However, after what we have seen from the Heat, they are arguably the best team at identifying and developing talent. Their current roster heading into the 2020 NBA finals is a prime example of the Heat’s ability to be smarter than other NBA franchises.
Their roster is the perfect blend of veteran players and developing talent. However, many of these players were ignored by other franchises in the past. Bam Adebayo was only selected 14th in the 2017 NBA draft and was an NBA All-Star by his third season. Fan-favorite Tyler Herro was 13th in the 2019 NBA draft. Any analyst would now agree that both of these players should have gone substantially higher in the NBA draft. Both should have been a top 3 pick.
Duncan Robinson started off as a division 3 basketball player. He went undrafted in 2018 and signed with the NBA Summer League. Subsequently, he signed with the G-League in the 2018-19 season and only played 15 games for the Heat as a rookie. He is in his second season with the Heat. Kendric Nunn similarly went undrafted in the 2018 NBA draft and played in the G-League. From the G-league he signed with the Heat in 2019. For the 2019-20 season, he made the All-Rookie team. Both Nunn and Robinson should have been top 5 picks in the NBA draft.
The Heat have also been able to sign many veteran players that other teams did not want to sign to long term contracts. Andre Idudola while he had an impressive run with the Golden State Warriors had $32,185,185 in guarantee money on his contract at age 36. Many teams did not necessarily want to meet the demands of his contract at his age. Similarly, Jae Crowder since 2017 has been traded by 4 different teams. Both players have made impressive contributions to the Heat in the 2020 playoffs.
Jimmy Butler when he signed with the Heat shocked many people in the basketball community. Despite some playoff success, many teams did not necessarily want to build a franchise around Jimmy Butler. Butler was traded by the Chicago Bulls in 2017 and Minnesota Timberwolves in 2018. After a successful run with the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2019 playoffs, Butler according to some sources was not offered even a 4-year Max contract with the 76ers. However, the Heat were willing to guarantee him $103,137,300 over three-years and give him a player option in fourth year.
Butler has arguably been the best defensive player in the playoffs. His timely scoring and ability to close out games is something that Milwaukee Bucks or Boston Celtics do not have on their roster. He has only averaged 20.7 PPG is accompanied by his legendary performances in 4th quarters and in elimination games have become legendary.
Similarly, Goran Dragić was an undervalued asset for many years. He only started 13 games in his five seasons and he was traded in 2015 by the Phoenix Suns to the Heat. Dragic had been selected as the NBA’s Most Improved Player for the 2013-14 season and made an All-NBA team in 2013-14. The Heat has retained him for the past six seasons and he has been their leader. The All-Star has shown the ability to be a scorer as well and he has been the Heat’s leading scorer through the first three rounds of the playoffs. His ability to make timely baskets is something that is rare in the NBA.
Even going back to the 2016 Heat playoff team, Dragic was the second-leading scorer for the Heat in the playoffs and helped lead the Heat to push the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Toronto Raptors to 7 games. The Raptors would go on to lose in 6 games to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Many teams did not necessarily want to build around Dragic or Butler. However, their performance so far in the playoffs has proved many teams wrong. While averaging just north of a combined 42 points per game, their scoring has been miraculous in the playoffs. Not all scoring is equal. They are consistent scorers and there are really no flaws in their offensive game. Also, their ability to score in critical moments in the game is something that many players don’t have. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in the playoffs.
Unlike many analysts, I believe the Heat have not gotten lucky in the playoffs. Holding Giannis to 21.8 PPG in the semifinals was an impressive defensive effort. The Bucks are not good at winning game 1 in any playoff series. Over the past three seasons, in the first two rounds, the Bucks were 1-3 going into the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals.
For game 2, the Bucks gave the Heat a huge lead in the first quarter that the Bucks could not seemingly recover from over the next three quarters. The Bucks after losing game 1 should have been ready to play in game 2 and should have dominated the first quarter of game 2. Even with Giannis scoring 23 points in the next three quarters, it was not enough for the Bucks to come back and win. As many remember, Butler was also fouled while trying to shoot a game-winning shot and his free throws won the Heat game 2. However, the game should have not been that close in the 4th quarter.
In the opening quarter of game 3, Giannis tweaked his ankle. However, the Bucks still had led the Heat by 7 points at half time. The Bucks even managed to outscore the Heat by 5 points in the third quarter and Giannis managed to score 10 points in the third quarter. However, Butler and Bam would score a combined 27 points in the 4th quarter and propel the Heat to victory. Giannis would go down with an injury in game 4 and not play in game 5.
The Bucks gave up game 1 as expected and they surrendered the first quarter of game 2. This cost them the first two games. For game 3, Butler and Bam did have arguably the best offensive and defensive 4th quarter performances of their career. It should be expected that Butler and Bam will have games similar to game 3 over the course of any playoff series. The Bucks were almost destined to lose game 3. Even with Giannis performing at an MVP level, the Bucks were not going to come back from a 3-0 deficit. The Bucks could have games 1 and 2. With a 3-1 lead, even without Giannis, they could have the series.
In many respects, the Celtics lost the first two games because the Heat were better at performing late in games. The clutch defense and offense in overtime by Bam and Butler won the Heat game 1. Bam would erupt for 15 points in the third quarter of game 2. Butler would also score 6 points and make 3 huge steals in the 4th quarter. However, the Celtics got unlucky in game 3. In game 3, Herro would score 37 points and shock the NBA world. Similar to the first two games, the Heat would go on to outscore the Celtics by ten points in the 4th quarter of the game 6 elimination game. Butler managed to score 9 points in the 4th quarter in game 6 to eliminate the Celtics. Bam matched Butler's intensity and scored 10 points in the 4th quarter. Tatum would go scoreless in the first quarter of game 6.
Similar to Denver their success has been largely due to the fact that they had many emerging young players that took their games to the next level in the playoffs. This has caused many teams to underestimate them. Also, both teams demonstrated the ability to win games in the 4th quarter.
Needless to say, the Lakers have their hands full with the Heat. The Heat have an even deeper roster than the Denver Nuggets Nuggets. For the first five games of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat outside of their two leading scorers averaged 68.0 points per game. That is 5.6 points more per game than the supporting cast that Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray had in the Western Conference Finals.
The Heat doesn't have any superstars, however, have so many “good” players. Jokic and Murray played like they were superstars in the playoffs. However, Dwight Howard’s defense on Jokic and James’s defense on Murray late in the series really made a difference for the Lakers. James and Davis played like some of the best basketball of their career.
The Heat have players that are clutch and know how to close out games. Andre, Dragic, and Butler especially how to close out games. Compared to games 1 through 5, the three players scored a combined 8 more points than they averaged in games 1 through 5. They are not afraid of the pressure of playing in big games. Other teams Sometimes they cannot figure out how to win a playoff series, the Heat have it built into their DNA. This was something that Boston has not demonstrated in the playoffs. It took Boston 7 games to beat the Raptors in the second round.
The Heat know how to beat better teams. However, the Lakers are not just any team. They do have Lebron James and Anthony Davis. For the Lakers to win, James is going to have a score first mentality. The Lakers outside of Davis and James only averaged 55.4 points per game in the Western Conference finals. Offense is going to be the primary issue for the Lakers. The Heat are not only the best defensive team in the playoffs, but they averaged 112.3 PPG in the Eastern Conference Finals. And this was against the astute defensive Boston Celtics.
It is going to require a similar offensive effort that the Lakers muster to beat the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals. However, the Heat are substantially better defensively. The Nuggets have shown offensively to be just as potent as the Heat. The same notion applies for the Heat. The Heat are going to have difficulty scoring on the Lakers. The Lakers are arguably even better defensively than the Boston Celtics.
As for match-ups, James and Butler guarding each other is sure to be interesting. However, Bam and Davis are very similar players. Their match-up is going to be the most exciting in the playoffs. The Heat have not been utilizing a traditional center in the playoffs. However, Dwight Howard is skilled and athletic enough to guard Bam.
The Lakers have yet to beat a good defensive team in the playoffs. The Rockets, Nuggets, and Portland are as good offensively as the Miami Heat, however, they are on their level defensively. Similarly, the Nuggets present the depth of young talent that the Heat possesses. And both the Lakers and Heat have yet to experience an extended 7 game series.
Both teams face a tough series. However, if James and Davis continue the performance that they had in the Western Conference finals, the Lakers will not lose. The duo averaged an impressive 59.8 points per game in the last three games of the series of conference finals. Moreover, James has performed at a very high level in the NBA finals. In James’s last NBA final appearance in 2018 he averaged 34.0 PPG, 10.0 APG, and 8.5 rebounds per game. James in his historic finals victory over the Warriors in 2016 averaged 29.7 PPG, 11.3 RPG, and 8.9 APG. Let’s not forget that Davis averaged 31.2 PPG in the Western Conference Finals.
The Lakers should win in either six or seven games.