By Matthew Zimmer
After 80-plus days in the bubble in Orlando the LA Lakers and Miami Heat are on the precipice of an NBA Title.
LeBron James makes his 10th Finals appearance in his 17th NBA season, which is just ridiculous. He joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2 in Milwaukee, 8 in LA) and Boston’s Bill Russell and Sam Jones as the only players in NBA history to reach 10 NBA Finals.
However, Miami’s star, Jimmy Butler, has never been here before. The 31-year-old previously never even reached the conference finals, luckily his coach is a Finals veteran.
Former University of Portland Pilot Erik Spoelstra is in his 12th season as the Heat head coach. He’s making his fifth appearance in the Finals as the head man, but his first since LeBron James left in 2014.
Now, I’m not Peter Sampson, but here’s what I’ll be watching for in the Finals.
This isn’t the “sexy” matchup, we’ll get to the more “exciting matchups” later, but this one could determine the whole series.
One big discussion piece surrounding the Finals this week has been how the Lakers two superstars will deal with a Heat team that doesn’t have a “superstar” but has a good balance.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis are obviously the two best players in the series, but do the Lakers even have another player in the Top 10 of players in this series?
The rest of the Lakers roster includes playoff vets like Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo and Danny Green (and some others who haven’t played much), but it also includes a ton of guys who haven’t been in the playoffs until this season.
So, No. 1 and 2 are James and AD respectively, who fills in the rest of the Top 10?
Jimmy Butler is No. 3; he’s averaging 20.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game this postseason. Bam Adebayo is my No. 4 with 18.5 points, 11.4 boards and nearly five assists per game.
The next three would also come from the Heat; No. 5 Goran Dragic, No. 6 Tyler Herro and No. 7 Duncan Robinson. I could be persuaded to reorder all three of them depending on the game.
Dragic is a veteran leader who is actually leading the Heat in scoring average (20.9) this postseason. Herro and Robinson are rookies who can light it up from three, and Herro proved he’s ready for the big stage after scoring 19, 22 and 37 in the Boston series.
Miami’s Jae Crowder is my No. 8. He’s a good defender and a decent three-point shooter (34.4% in the postseason).
The final two spots are the hardest. Rondo? Green? Iggy?
Rajon Rondo is a good leader, point guard and distributor when LeBron isn’t on the floor or wants to play off the ball.
When he’s on, Danny Green is a good three-point shooter and a good defender. When he’s off? He’s terrible, just ask Lakers Twitter.
Andre Iguodala’s averages aren’t great, but he’s a leader, a good defender, a decent three-point shooter and he’s been to the last five NBA Finals.
I’m going to go Rondo No. 9 and Iggy No. 10.
However, the biggest thing I’ve determined (along with almost every NBA expert, which I am not one) is the Heat have the better TEAM while LA has the better individual players.
Now, I’m not sure how often they will directly guard one another, but how these two perform in all aspects will determine the outcome of the Finals.
Yes, Anthony Davis will be important (he’s next), but he’s never been here before. LBJ has.
Butler is a different kind of leader. He isn’t hunting for his shot, aka he doesn’t NEED to shoot. Butler wants the best shot available to be taken, even if that isn’t his attempt.
James, on the other hand, also wants the best shot, but he needs the ball in his hands to be effective. Also, we’ve seen it for years, he needs reliable shooters, and the LA supporting cast has been anything but reliable in the bubble.
Kyle Kuzma (31.5% three-point shooter), Alex Caruso (24.4% from three), Danny Green (36.4% from deep) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is shooting 42.1% from three, but he just doesn’t shoot a lot of threes.
By comparison, Tyler Herro (37.8% three-point shooter) and Duncan Robinson (40% from three) have been great in the postseason.
So, if the stars, James and Butler, play well on their own, and their assist numbers are up they will put their teams in a position to win.
As much as James and Butler will be the bigger factors, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Anthony Davis-Bam Adebayo matchup a little more.
AD is taller, but he’s not as physically gifted when it comes to bulk. Davis stands 6’10” while Adebayo is listed at 6’9″ and I think someone is lying. Anyway, Adebayo blocked Jayson Tatum with his wrist bent backward in the East Finals.
I’m not saying Davis can’t be menacing at the rim, but Adebayo is more physical. If AD can’t take the punishment on the block that Adebayo throws at him, this could be a disastrous series for the Lakers.
Regardless, I don’t have a great read on how these two will matchup. Bam was a great matchup for the Heat against Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Miami provided the MVP with headaches throughout their series. However, AD plays a different style than the Greek Freak.
Truthfully, I struggle with predictions because I could see this series going either way.
LeBron James is still a freak, even in his 17th season. Jimmy Butler is playing fantastic team basketball while the Heat role players are stepping up big time.
Right now, I just don’t have faith in any Laker players not named LeBron James or Anthony Davis.
I think it’s foolish to bet against LeBron in the Finals, even though admittedly he does have a losing record on the NBA’s biggest stage. However, I also think the Heat have the better overall team.
Heat in 6.
Game 1 is tonight at 6 p.m. PT on ABC.
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