An Extremely Timely And Thorough NBA Finals Preview
1:56 PM EDT on September 30, 2020
Good day to you, casual basketball observer! Yes, it is that time once again: May 30, famously a totally ordinary start-date for the NBA Finals.
Ah, wait, I'm now hearing... yes, I'm being told that's "insanely wrong"; that it's actually September 30; that the NBA Finals are beginning four months later than usual and inside of a quarantine bubble at Disney World due to the coronavirus pandemic; that the society of the United States is in full collapse; that its westernmost contiguous third has been on fire for months and its Gulf Coast battered by a near-continuous parade of freakish tropical storms; that the audience will watch the games pale, haphazardly shorn, and haunted by terror from inside domiciles they've scarcely exited over the past six months; that like everyone else I have been living this reality for most of the year and had merely lapsed into a blissful, but transient, psychotic episode for a moment there as I typed the lead paragraph of this blog. Hm. That does sound familiar, now that I think about it.
Clearly you are not going to a bar to watch the game! But maybe you have plans to simulate the experience of group sports-watching via Zoom or Google Meet or some tin cans at the ends of a very long string, and would like to have some knowledgeable-sounding things to say about the action. Maybe you are planning to watch the games entirely by yourself, and would simply like to know what the hell is going on in them. That is what this blog is for, my friend. To arm you with the single most cromulent packet of knowledge you can possess in autumn of 2020: who the dang heck is playing in the NBA Finals.
What is their deal?
Even without the kooky Denver Nuggets coming back from two consecutive 3-1 deficits and capturing America's hearts, the Miami Heat were not going to become cuddly underdogs for anybody outside of South Florida this postseason. They're just too angular and abrasive. Their playing style and organizational culture is too rooted in macho toughness and stingy defense for them to ever work as an inspiring Little Engine That Could for a casual national audience. Also, their star player and crunch-time closer is the most insufferable cheesebutt with two intact Achilles tendons presently stalking the surface of the earth.
Still, at least in the strictest bracket-based terms, the fifth-seeded Heat pulled off three straight upsets to reach the Finals, and that ought to mean something. In the first round they overwhelmed a fourth-seeded Pacers team that was a shell of its regular-season incarnation and had no hope of winning. In the second, they exposed the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who by regular-season winning percentage appeared to be one of the most dominant teams of all time, as utterly one-dimensional frauds. In the East finals they did us all a favor by dispatching the fractious and [lifts bulletproof shield in front of face] poorly coached third-seeded Boston Celtics. They did it all with admirable tactical and schematic flexibility. This is a motley cast of home-grown upstarts and crotchety veterans, each adding meaningful contributions from every part of the rotation. Even Solomon Hill, whom I'd forgotten was still in the NBA until I looked up and saw him shambling around in Game 4 against the Celtics.
Does this make the Heat, who would be only the second team seeded lower than fourth to win a championship in NBA history, the sentimental favorites in this series? I'm sorry, that is a question for the "Should I root for them?" section of the blog, and you have not read that far yet.
Who are their guys?
The Heat have a lot of guys! Nearly all of their guys are guys. That's simply unacceptable. For the purposes of this blog, we will focus on only a few of their guys.
Here's 23-year-old center Bam Adebayo making one of the greatest defensive plays you or I will ever see, in Game 1 of the Celtics series:
Bam is just extremely cool. In these playoffs he has directly and soundly outplayed, in order: Indiana's Myles Turner, reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks, and, uh, Boston's turd lasagna of a frontcourt rotation. If he continues this trend against the Lakers' Anthony Davis, who has been by some margin the best overall player in these playoffs, then it will become necessary to put his face on a unit of American currency. I don't make the laws!
Then there is Jimmy Butler, the terrific and infuriating two-way swingman for whom the Heat absolutely fleeced the Philadelphia 76ers in a sign-and-trade in the summer of 2019, in the break before this endless nightmare of a season. Can you remember the summer of 2019? Reader, I cannot. My brain will not allow me to remember more pleasant times than these. It is a protective adaptation. As far as I know I was born this morning. Anyway here is a video of Jimmy Butler doing what he does best, which is play-acting in such a way that the nearest referee feels flattered by the invitation to take part in the game and rewards him with a pair of free-throws.
Sike. I am not posting a video of that shithousing garbage on our pristine new website.
Moving along more quickly now! The Heat will also need, and likely get, big contributions from Goran Dragic, a tougher-than-hell 34-year-old Slovenian guard (and former all-star!) whose career seemed in clear decline before he reasserted himself as Miami's most dynamic scorer and ball-handler in these playoffs. Then there is also Tyler Herro, a precocious 20-year-old rookie guard who absolutely lit the Celtics up to the tune of 37 points—the most ever by a rookie in a conference finals game—in Game 4 of that series; he' s lots of fun. And there's swingman Duncan Robinson, the mad three-point bomber, who has faded a bit in these playoffs after a regular season in which he poured in frickin' 270 threes and shot damn near 45-percent from outside the arc. He remains a threat to go nuts at any time, throw in a half-dozen threes in a handful of minutes, and wrench the Lakers' defense into disarray and ruin.
And then, ugh, uuuuugh, I have to mention Andre Iguodala in yet another Finals preview. I do not have any personal problem with Andre Iguodala, who has been a splendid professional player for a long time. It's just that I am sick of this shit! Iggy has calcified, in his 36-year-old dotage, to all but a commemorative bronze statue of his former self. He can't run, he can't move laterally, he can't really make athletic plays anymore. And yet it is necessary to include him here, because he has done as much as just about anybody over the past decade to defeat LeBron James in the NBA Finals, by defending him about as capably as it's possible to defend him. There is at least the slim possibility that 10 days from now we will all be like, "Damn, I guess Iguodala did it again," and then I would feel stupid for not having mentioned here that this was a thing that could happen. Are you satisfied? Can we just move on already?????
Should I root for them?
The Heat are more balanced and infinitely more cohesive than the Lakers. Their rotation is chock full of players who started out as raw and only modestly regarded rookies, whom the Heat invested in with time and patience and care and vision; who have become, or are becoming, the best version of themselves in a workplace that seems sincerely oriented around the flourishing of its people. In the past decade the Heat have lost LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh—three of the absolute greatest players of their generation—and never even approached the tank. They've kept a competitive team on the floor year after year for nearly the entire lifespan of the franchise to date. They're constantly rejiggering their team on the fly while holding fast to an internal culture that prizes toughness, continuity, and player development. They're competitive in every area that an organization can be: in the draft, in free agency, at trade deadlines, everywhere. Erik Spoelstra has been the head coach since 2008, and has been on the coaching staff since 1997. In nearly every respect, the Miami Heat represent damn near the ideal of how a professional sports organization should be. They're also the underdogs, going up against a franchise that tanked shamelessly just a couple seasons ago, wallowed in public dysfunction for the past half-decade, and then sopped up two of the biggest stars in the sport for essentially no reason other than that they wanted to wear Lakers jerseys.
On the other hand, Jimmy Butler is really fucking annoying.
What must they do to win?
So, this will be tricky! (As you might guess the job of defeating the Western Conference's best team could be.) Most opponents have approached the problem of defending LeBron James and Anthony Davis by packing the area around the basket with bodies and leaving the three-point arc relatively lightly defended. This has made the task fairly straightforward for the Lakers: Make some three-pointers. They're 12-0 in these playoffs when they make at least 30 percent of their three-point attempts. They're 0-3 when they do not make at least 30 percent of their three-point attempts.
Thirty percent is not a huge percent! You do not need a team of Ray Allens to shoot 30 percent from three. A league-average shooter, according to Basketball Reference, will hit nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc. You might react to this by thinking, Well then, the mission against the Lakers is to guard the shit out of the three-point line, isn't it? But see the tradeoff there is that you are allowing LeBron James and Anthony Davis to rampage to the rim against a spaced-out defense. I said it was tricky.
The Heat flummoxed the goober Boston Celtics by throwing a zone defense at them. I suppose it's possible that also could work on the Lakers, whose offense never approaches dynamism and could stall out against a haphazard array of traffic cones. But the Lakers will have a size advantage against the Heat, and against a zone that seems like it could turn into a festival of offensive rebounds.
This all leaves aside the question of what the Heat must do on offense to score efficiently against a tall and good Los Angeles defense. Unfortunately we must move on, having resolved nothing.
Will they win?
Look man, I didn't even pick them to beat the Bucks. We are living in times when forecasting anything feels acutely stupid and pointless. Who the hell knows!
Los Angeles Lakers
What is their deal?
The Lakers make their, uh, triumphant (?) return to the NBA Finals stage, after an unprecedented nine-year absence. From the frickin' NBA Finals. In the history of the Los Angeles Lakers, nine damn years is the longest they've ever gone without appearing in the goddamn Finals. That makes me sick. I hate it. I wasn't alive the last time the Washington Wizards franchise so much as made it to the conference finals.
The first couple rounds of these playoffs had a fun pattern: The Lakers dropped the first game of each, and everybody went, They're dead, LeBron's finally washed, they're just not equipped to play the modern small-ball game centered around explosive alpha-dog scoring guards who can shoot pull-up threes from near halfcourt! And then they won four straight games and booted the opposing team directly into existential crisis. Then they more or less comfortably handled the extremely lovable and versatile Denver Nuggets in a conference finals series that never seemed in serious doubt. It turns out that featuring damn near a combined 14 vertical feet worth of top-five players, including by any sane reckoning no worse than the second-best professional basketball player of all time, is actually a pretty good formula for postseason success, even if they are surrounded by a bunch of weird doofuses.
Who are their guys?
Their guys are LeBron James and Anthony Davis! I thought I'd made that clear already! They're by miles the two best players in this series. If they play like themselves, I'm not sure how much anything else matters.
Here is where I have to do the thing where I list the frankly rather shitty complementary players who will have to impersonate replacement-level professionals four times over the next couple of weeks if the Lakers are to win the championship. I'm not looking forward to it any more than you are!
So there's Rajon Rondo, who was very good over a decade ago, then mind-bogglingly terrible for several years, and in these playoffs has rejuvenated himself into pretty clearly the Lakers' third-best player. And not just by default! He's defending reasonably well, shooting threes reasonably well (something that would have been unthinkable during the peak years of his career), and doing reasonably good stuff as a ball-handler and orchestrator of offense for a team that, again, is grueling misery to behold at that end of the floor.
There's Danny Green, the Lakers' best and most dangerous off-the-catch three-point shooter. He and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope likely will be called upon to guard Jimmy Butler so that LeBron can conserve his energy for the highest-leverage moments. They, and Green in particular, will have to stay out of foul trouble and keep Butler from shooting eleventy million free-throws.
And there's Kyle Kuzma, the young forward whom the Lakers reportedly treated as untouchable in the trade negotiations that eventually netted them Davis. In retrospect that's pretty hilarious. Kuzma is just a guy. But now he is a guy who will have to give the Lakers complementary scoring and competent defense in the NBA Finals, lest LeBron place him on the nose cone of a rocket and blast that rocket into the sun.
Finally, there is the Lakers' deeply hilarious triad of marginally useful doofus bigs: Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris, and JaVale McGee. Some number of them will actually matter at some point in this series, for good or for ill. That is all I will say about them.
I will, however, digress into discussing a pet peeve of mine! At some point in this series the Lakers very likely will deploy a five-man lineup featuring either:
- Davis at center, plus LeBron and some combination of guards and wings; or
- Morris and Davis and literally any three other players.
At this point, you may hear one of the broadcast analysts say that the Lakers have "gone small" or are using a "small lineup" or are playing "small-ball." You may wake up the next morning to sports blogs by sportswriters on by-God sports websites making similar claims. It is your duty as a person who cares about truth not to fall for this. They said this shit when the Lakers played Davis at center against a Houston Rockets lineups whose tallest player stood nearly half a foot shorter than him. It is absolute horseshit.
Anthony Davis is a huge player; he stands a hair under seven feet tall and has one of the widest wingspans in the league. Furthermore, he is one of the sport's premier interior defenders and shot-blockers. His natural position is center; that has been his natural position since he was a freshman phenomenon at the University of Kentucky in the year two thousand and friggin' eleven. His preferred position is power forward, but when he plays as a power forward, he is an unusually huge power forward; a team with Anthony Davis at power forward is not an ordinarily configured team, but a team playing an abnormally huge lineup. When that team plays him at either front-court spot next to a fellow traditional big man such as Markieff Morris, that team is not playing "small"; that team is not even playing "normal," relative to how professional basketball is played in the year 2020. That team is playing "large." When that team plays Anthony Davis next to LeBron James, who is 6-foot-9 and built like an ambulance, that team likewise is not playing "small." It is in fact playing two men no smaller than Alonzo Mourning, one of the most rugged and imposing big men of the 1990s and early 2000s. More relevantly, it is playing two men no smaller than Bam Adebayo, the largest player in Miami's best and most used five-man lineups.
That is not "small-ball!" The rest of a five-man lineup featuring Davis and either James or Morris could include three actual young children and it still would not fill any practically useful definition of "small-ball," which describes when a team downsizes to wing- or guard-sized players at one or both of its traditional frontcourt positions. That is because LeBron James and Markieff Morris are both very large players. To the extent LeBron does not typically play a traditional big-man position, that is because he is a historical anomaly, not because he is in any way small. He is huge.
If the Lakers run with a lineup featuring LeBron at center and four players definitely smaller than him, then we can talk about small-ball!
Should I root for them?
You will not have many more chances to see LeBron James do classically LeBron James-type shit at the levels and in the quantities demanded by the sport's most pressurized environment. The Lakers can win without him doing it this time—that's how good Anthony Davis is—but most scenarios that end with the Lakers hoisting the trophy also involve him doing it. The converse is also true: Most scenarios that involve LeBron playing at his peak over the next two weeks also end with the Lakers winning the title. Maybe it's because I'm now officially old enough to have become painfully familiar with good things passing into bittersweet memory. Maybe everybody is now, because that's what most good things seem to be doing. But I actually do regard this as a compelling reason to pull for the Lakers. Someday it will become unambiguously clear that LeBron James can no longer "Do It," and I would really like that day not to be, like, this coming Monday.
Also, the Lakers winning means living in a world in which JaVale McGee has as many championship rings as Larry Bird. I find the possibilities delightful.
What must they do to win?
Apparently they must shoot 30.01 percent from the frickin' three-point line.
Will they win?
This blog is over.
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