Whether regular season or the playoffs, the NBA is all about the matchups. Because offense and defense in a playoff series is often more of a team than individual effort, lineup and rotations matchups can determine the winner.
How the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat answer the following three critical questions about the specific lineups and rotations they plan to use in the next four to seven games could determine who wins the NBA Finals:
1. What Do the Heat Do When the Lakers Go Big?
The first key matchup question the Heat are going to have to answer if they hope to upset the Lakers and win the NBA Finals is what do they do when the Lakers go big with Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis, and LeBron James? Miami’s starting front court of Bam Adebayo, Jae Crowder, and Duncan Robinson doesn’t match up well against the Lakers’ super-sized front court, which means the Heat may be forced to change their starting lineup.
The Lakers’ Howard, Davis, and James front court is a nightmare matchup for the Heat because they ideally need Bam Adebayo to defend Anthony Davis but Duncan Robinson or Jae Crowder cannot guard Dwight Howard. To make matters worse, even if Adebayo defends Howard, there’s no way Crowder and Robinson will be able to guard Davis and James, which means Miami is likely going to be forced to change their starting backcourt.
This is the matchup that is likely to doom the Heat because it’s going to force them to replace Duncan Robinson, a player whose elite 3-point shooting their offense depends upon, with either Kelly Olynyk or Andre Iguodala. Miami has two options: bring in Olynyk to defend Howard, allowing Adebayo to guard Davis and Crowder to guard James, or bring in Iguodala to defend James, leaving Adebayo on Howard and Crowder on Davis.
Either option is fraught with peril. Adebayo, Crowder, and Iguodala may have a better chance of limiting Howard, Davis, and James than Olynyk, Adebayo, and Crowder even though Bam wouldn’t be guarding Anthony. The Lakers’ advantage in sheer size, talent, and experience in the front court is what makes them the prohibitive favorites in this series. The Heat’s only options may be get Howard in early foul trouble or to go small.
2. What Do the Lakers Do When the Heat Go Small?
The Heat’s best strategy against the Lakers’ big lineup could be to go small and try to force the Lakers to match up by replacing Dwight Howard with Markieff Morris at power forward and moving Anthony Davis to the five. There’s no question that a front court of Adebayo, Crowder, and Robinson or maybe Iguodala versus Davis, Morris, and James would be a much better matchup for the Heat than having to go against Howard, Davis, and James.
The good news for the Heat is that the Lakers normally play their version of small ball with Anthony Davis playing the five around half the time. The bad news is Frank Vogel could surprise everybody and play big all game long. While JaVale McGee has not played great recently, he did play well in the two wins the Lakers had over the Heat back at the end of 2019 and there’s an argument to be made playing two bigs against the Heat could be smart.
One of the Miami Heat’s weaknesses is their lack of a capable defensive center to backup Bam Adebayo and the Lakers going big for the entire game could scramble all of Erik Spoelstra’s planned defensive strategies and rotations. While Howard will likely start and play 30 minutes for the Lakers, there’s a good chance Vogel will give McGee a chance to redeem himself, keep Howard the out of foul trouble, and test whether he can be effective against the Heat.
While a Lakers’ front court of Davis, Morris, and James may be easier for the Heat to match up against, it also may be the Lakers best lineup at both ends of the court, providing better 3-point shooting and quicker rotations. Regardless of what Vogel decides, the Lakers will still have an advantage in the front court whether they stay big with Howard or McGee at the five or go small with Davis at the five against the Heat’s normal starting lineup.
3. What Do the Lakers Do When the Heat play Zone?
One way the Heat might be able to cover for their mismatch disadvantage in the front court against the Lakers is to deploy a 2–3 zone defense, which has been a key element of their defensive game plans throughout the playoffs. The zone could enable them to keep their starting front court of Adebayo, Crowder, and Robinson on the floor, especially when the Lakers went big with Howard or Mcgee at the five. They used the Zone against LA before.
Deploying the 2–3 zone against the Lakers could be a smart strategy for the Heat to test because capable and consistent 3-point shooting, which is one of Los Angeles’ weaknesses, is a critical criteria to beating zone defenses. Unfortunately, the other way smart teams beat zones is to get the ball to a superstar zone buster like LeBron James or Anthony Davis in the heart of the zone at the free throw line where they can either score or facilitate.
In fact, that’s exactly what the Lakers did to beat the Heat zone in the games the Lakers won in November and December 2019. Posting LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the middle led to a plethora of easy points and assists. Spoelstra will have to come up with new wrinkles for the Heat’s 2–3 zone to confuse the Lakers this time around but playing zone is definitely a way for Miami to avoid having to change their normal lineups and rotations.
Look for the Lakers to also exploit the weaknesses of teams playing zones, namely poor offensive rebounding and transition defense because each defender doesn’t have a specific responsibility for any one offensive player. Frank Vogel and the Lakers’ coaching staff are going to have the Lakers ready to take advantage of the Heat’s 2-3 zone, especially when they go big. Laker centers will be sprinting down court looking for touchdown passes.