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So it all comes down to the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron James takes on his old team in the bubble. The Heat have made a Cinderella run as the five-seed. There are a lot of narratives to go around. Let’s dive into some statistics for the two teams.
How They Got Here
While it is somewhat of a surprise that the Heat have gotten this far, it is no fluke. Miami has the second-best net rating in the playoffs, behind only the Lakers. These have been the best two teams in the playoffs. The Lakers have excelled on offense with a 115.6 rating after struggling to a 104.5 rating in their eight seeding games. They have paired that with the fourth-best defensive rating in the playoffs (108.1), improving on their strong play from the regular season, during which their 106.1 defensive rating ranked third in the league.
The Heat have also been excellent on offense; they’ve managed a 114.5 offensive rating, good for fourth in the playoffs. Their defense has not been as strong, ranking just seventh in the playoffs with a 109.4 rating, but it has been effective enough to dispatch the back-to-back MVP and the Celtics’ up-and-coming wing tandem. Erik Spoelstra has used innovative strategies to throw off opposing offenses enough to win games. The Heat walled off the paint to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo from driving against the Milwaukee Bucks, then played a zone for large portions of their series against the Boston Celtics. Outside of Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, they do not have incredible defensive personnel, but Spoelstra has worked magic with what he has.
When Miami is on offense, they most frequently run the pick-and-roll, with the ball-handler or roller taking the shot on 26.7 possessions per game in the playoffs, per NBA Stats data. Goran Dragic (0.87 points per possession on 9.1 possessions per game), Jimmy Butler (0.95 on 5.4), and Tyler Herro (0.89 on 4.1) have all been frequent pick-and-roll ball-handlers, and each has managed at least decent efficiency.
The Heat are most effective when they give the ball up. Bam Adebayo is very dangerous as the roll-man, as he’s capable of either finishing himself (1.39 points per possession on 3.3 possessions per game) and is a gifted passer (4.9 assists per game in the playoffs, behind only Nikola Jokic among centers). Adebayo took over in the Eastern Conference Finals, averaging 21.8 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game on 60.8% shooting. But the Lakers have better big men than the Celtics—including galaxy-destroyer Anthony Davis—and just handled the Nuggets, who had an elite big of their own in Jokic (though Jokic still averaged 21.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game on 53.2% shooting).
Meanwhile, Duncan Robinson (40.0% on 7.3 attempts per game), Herro (37.8% on 6.5), Dragic (36.3% on 6.8), and Jae Crowder (34.4% on 8.1) have all punished teams from outside. They constantly flit around the arc, and the Heat use creative techniques to get them open. Miami leads the NBA in the playoffs in scoring off handoffs, with 0.93 points per possession on 10.0 possessions per game. Robinson (1.02 points per possession on 3.0 per game) and Herro (1.16 on 2.5) in particular are very prolific off handoffs. The Heat also rank second in the playoffs in scoring off cuts, scoring 1.26 points per possession on 8.3 possessions per game.
Miami does not utilize isolation very much, going to it only 7.1 times per game, (fourth-least in the playoffs) and scoring a middling 0.95 points per possession (seventh). Jimmy Butler is okay at isolation offense (0.98 points per possession on 2.8 possessions per game), and he can get the Heat a basket if they need one, but it is not a huge part of their offense.
The Heat’s best lineups typically feature Butler, Dragic, and Adebayo with two shooters orbiting the arc. Everyone on the floor can hurt you, and they all are willing and able to move the ball. Their most frequent lineup is the above three with Crowder and Robinson, and that lineup has +1.4 net-rating in 193 minutes, according to NBA Stats. Swap out Robinson for Herro, and their net-rating balloons to +18.0 over 69 minutes.
The Lakers need to be vigilant on defense. The Heat have hurt teams through secondary actions more so than through their stars. They are constantly moving, and they run some cool stuff to get open. The rest of the team are unselfish and will find open cutters. But if the Lakers can stick with the Heat’s off-ball movement, Miami does not have the talent to consistently break down the Lakers off the dribble and could struggle to create shots.
When the Lakers are on offense, to nobody’s surprise, they run nearly everything through James and Davis. James scores 0.93 points per possession on 6.3 possessions per game as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, and 1.06 on 5.2 in isolation. Davis, meanwhile, scores 1.04 points per possession on 4.8 on post-ups per game, 1.51 on 2.3 possessions per game as the pick-and-roll roll man, and throws in 1.05 on 2.9 possessions per game in isolation as well.
The Lakers surround their stars with spot-up shooters, but their accuracy is more hit-or-miss than the Heat’s. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (42.1% on 5.1 attempts per game), Danny Green (36.4% on 5.1), and Markieff Morris (43.6% on 2.6) have been good in the playoffs, while Kyle Kuzma (31.5% on 3.5) and Alex Caruso (24.4% on 3.0) have struggled. Rajon Rondo has hit his threes (44.8% on 2.9 attempts per game), but as a career 31.6% three-point shooter, that will probably not continue. (He’s even a career 31.8% three-point shooter in the playoffs; Playoff Rondo has not typically extended beyond the three-point line.)
One way the Lakers make up for poor shooting is through their rebounding. The Lakers are second in the playoffs with a 29.7 offensive rebound percentage, and are third in the playoffs with 7.2 points per game off putbacks. The Heat are just eighth in the playoffs in defensive rebound percentage, at 75.3%. Offensive rebounding is one area where the Lakers should find success, especially if Miami goes to the zone like they did against Boston.
Laker lineups often feature James and Davis with one of Howard or McGee and two perimeter players. Their most common lineup is James, Davis, McGee, Green, and Caldwell-Pope, and it’s logged a +18.4 rating in 112 playoff minutes, per NBA Stats. (Replacing McGee with Howard has lowered that rating to +12.2 rating in 48 minutes.) The Heat will put McGee and Howard into tough positions on defense, forcing them to chase shooters around or hang with the faster Adebayo on the outside. If the Lakers can’t play them, they can take comfort knowing they have been very effective going small with Davis at center. Their best center-free lineup with anything resembling a decent chunk of minutes is James, Green, Morris, Davis, and Caldwell-Pope, with an absurd +54.9(!!!!!) rating in 30 minutes. It is still a small sample, but that is the Laker lineup with the most possible shooting, and they can still defend well because of Davis and James.
The Heat will help off the Lakers’ shooters to muck up the paint inside for Davis and James. The Rockets had some success doing this early in their series against the Lakers in the second round. In the same round, Miami upset the Milwaukee Bucks using a similar strategy. But James and Davis can both shoot from outside, so the Heat will not be able to defend them like they did Antetokounmpo. The Lakers’ perimeter players have also done enough to keep the offense humming, even without hitting their shots. Rondo in particular has been great moving the ball around, and carries a 41.8% assist percentage into the Finals.
All in all, the Lakers are probably too tough for the Heat. Spoelstra is a great coach, and will come up with some great stuff to combat the Lakers. This will help the Heat take a couple games. But, at the end of the day, James and Davis are too talented. Prediction: Lakers in six.