The long and uncertain road that began at the Walt Disney World Resort in July will culminate with the NBA Finals this week.
The Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat have displayed a great degree of physical and mental toughness, having both only lost three games in their respective conferences. They now fight for the ultimate prize — the NBA Championship.
The Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and the Denver Nuggets was closer than the 4-1 scoreline would suggest. Three out of the five games were decided by eight or less points, with clutch baskets by LeBron James and Anthony Davis earning the Lakers their first NBA Finals trip in a decade.
The Miami Heat defeated the Boston Celtics in a similar fashion, with three of their four victories coming in nail-biters that were decided by less than five points. With multiple players scoring in double digits throughout the series, Miami highlights the importance of team depth. This is their first time in the NBA Finals since 2014, when they were led by none other than LeBron James.
The Lakers defeated the Heat 2-0 in the season series, including a 113-110 win in December, which came down to the final shot. However, both victories occurred early in the season. Miami acquired Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder at February’s trade deadline. Both of the forwards will be key for defending James, and may have a tangible impact on the outcome of the series.
Davis has dominated this post-season, averaging 28.8 points per game along with 9.3 rebounds per game. He possesses a long and athletic 6’10” frame combined with the dexterity of a smaller guard. With this unique combination of size and speed, he is a tough cover for every defense.
However, Heat All-Star center Bam Adebayo is certainly up for the challenge. The 6’9” 255 lb. big man was instrumental in limiting Giannis Antetokounmpo offensively in the Heat’s second round series. The “Greek Freak” only matched his seasonal average of 29.5 points in one out of the four games he played. Adebayo must impact the Lakers scoring and rebounding to the same degree, as they thrive on both paint points and second-chance points.
James is headlining the 10th NBA Finals of his illustrious career, having reached the stage nine out of ten years in the past decade. He has historically elevated his play in the Finals, averaging 28.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.8 steals per game. In his 17th NBA season he shows no signs of slowing down, scoring 16 points in the fourth quarter of a closeout Game 5 against the Nuggets.
Jimmy Butler’s departure to the Miami Heat was met by healthy skepticism last summer, with the team having no established superstars. Those doubts have long subsided, with Butler leading the charge to the finals. He has averaged 20.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 4.5 assists in these playoffs.
In addition to his on-court production, Butler’s leadership warrants praise. By all accounts he demands excellence out of his teammates, and will not settle for less than 100 per cent effort at all times. This approach may have been unpopular with former teammates, but has been embraced fully by rookie teammate Tyler Herro. Herro has called Butler a “tremendous” leader, and feels that the team is in “good hands” with Butler at the helm.
The Heat offense is an even affair, with six players averaging double-digit points in the playoffs. It is bolstered by veteran point guard Goran Dragic, who scored over 20 points in four out of six games against the Celtics. The aforementioned Herro was also spectacular, exploding with 37 points in Game 4. Lastly, Adebayo was fantastic in the closeout Game 6, with 32 points. The Lakers will have their hands full on the defensive end.
The varied shooting of both teams may decide the championship. The Heat was red hot all season, shooting at a 37.9 per cent clip from three, good enough for second in the league. Against the Celtics, they shot only 32.3 per cent. The Lakers were middling from three at 34.9 per cent during the season. In their three losses this post-season, they shot below 29 per cent. The team that can find a consistent shooting stroke from three will have a distinct advantage.
Miami is easy to underestimate, especially due to their lack of a true high-scoring superstar. But make no mistake, they epitomize teamwork, often scoring and defending by committee. However, the Lakers field the two best players in the series. Both teams will fight tooth and nail, but the combined talent of the Lakers duo should help James capture his elusive fourth title in six games.
Graphic: Anh Phan | Design Editor