The NBA Finals starting Wednesday night between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat will be a matchup between a team that made it despite the bubble and a team that made it because of the bubble.
There’s no question these NBA Finals will go down as the strangest in league history considering the five-month suspension due to coronavirus and the three-month restart and playoffs held in the bubble without fans. The long layoff, loss of home court advantage, and lack of fans clearly hurt higher-seeded veteran teams like the Bucks, Clippers, and Raptors while helping lower-seeded younger teams like the Heat, Celtics, and Nuggets.
Surviving and Thriving in the Bubble!
The West’s top-seed Lakers were the only one of the league’s top four seeds to survive the bubble, which ended up eliminating the 2nd-seed Clippers from the West and the top and 2nd-seed Bucks and Raptors from the East. The Lakers won 5-game series against Damian Lillard and 8th-seed Blazers, James Harden and 4th-seed Rockets, and Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, and 3rd-seed Nuggets, despite playing in the bubble and losing home court.
Meanwhile, the East’s 5th-seed Heat benefitted from playing on a neutral site in the bubble where their young players were able to avoid fan pressure and facing three higher seeds who lost hard-earned home court advantages. Because of the bubble, the Heat swept Victor Oladipo and 4th-seed Pacers in four games, surprised Giannis Antetokounmpo and top-seed Bucks in five games, and took down Jason Tatum and 3rd-seed Celtics in six games.
No disrespect to the Pacers, Bucks, and Celtics but the Lakers are the one veteran team that has not only survived but also thrived in the bubble. They have tamed what critics said was the toughest road to the championship. They dominated in 5 games what was supposed to be the best 8th-seed ever in the Blazers, the most challenging matchup ever in the 4th-seed Rockets, and the best come-back playoff team ever in the 3rd-seed Nuggets.
The NBA Finals matchup the bubble created between the Lakers and Heat is such a mismatch that Miami winning would be the first time in the 68 year history of the Finals that a 5th-seed had ever been crowned as champion.
The Youth and Experience Factor!
While playing at a neutral site without the pressure of fans has helped the Miami Heat upset three higher seeded teams in the playoffs, age and experience are still likely to be major factors when it comes to the Finals. The Los Angeles Lakers with 35-year old LeBron James and 27-year old Anthony Davis have a clear advantage in age and experience over the Miami Heat with 30-year old Jimmy Butler and 22-year old Bam Adebayo.
Aside from LeBron James, who will be playing in his 10th NBA Finals, the Lakers have three other major players in their rotation who have Finals experience, including Danny Green, Dwight Howard, and Rajon Rondo. The only player on the younger Heat with Finals experience is Andre Iguodala, whom Miami dusted off in their Game 6 win over the Celtics and who’s had success guarding LeBron James in the Finals with the Warriors.
While the Finals won’t be played before fans, the pressure is going to ratchet up on Miami’s young 3-point shooters, who hit 39.1% of their threes against Indiana and 37.3% against Milwaukee but only 32.3% against Boston. Finals experience will be a major factor in who wins the championship. LeBron James is going to be laser focussed on taking full advantage of this opportunity to win his 4th NBA championship and boost his case for GOAT.
The Lakers’ edge in age and experience of their superstars and key role players over the Heat’s stars and players is going to be the challenge the Heat will have to somehow overcome to have a chance to win in the finals.
Dwight Howard’s the Wild Card!
The Heat are hoping 22-year old All-Star center Bam Adebayo can keep Lakers’ 27-year old superstar Anthony Davis in check while a mix of Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Andre Iguodala somehow contains LeBron James. While the chances of that happening are probably remote, the strategy completely ignores Dwight Howard, the wild card in the Lakers’ starting lineup who single-handedly shut down Nikola Jokic in the last series.
Dwight Howard’s likely to be the wild card in these NBA Finals also. The Heat will need to figure out how their current starting lineup is going to defend a dominating Lakers’ front court of James, Davis, and Howard. There’s no way a Heat front court of Robinson, Crowder, and Adebayo can handle the size and physicality of a James, Davis, and Howard front court. The Heat may be forced to change their starting lineup and rotations.
Replacing Robinson, their weak link defensively, with Olynyk or Iguodala is possible but could further hurt the Heat’s struggling offense, which has been dependent on surrounding Adebayo and Butler with 3-point shooters. Miami’s only solution may be to take a page out of the Houston’s playbook and try to beat the Lakers by going small. Only problem is Miami doesn’t have the defense or rebounding to make small ball work against LA.
The bottom line is Spoelstra will need to make adjustments to the Heat’s starting lineup to account for the mismatch the Lakers starting Dwight Howard creates or this Finals is likely to end quickly in four or five games.