By Will Chamblee | Sports Writer
The NBA Finals matchup is set, as the Los Angeles Lakers will take on the streaking Miami Heat in the conclusion to the NBA season.
Most expected the Lakers to be here, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis willing the team through the daunting Western Conference.
But no one expected the Miami Heat to be in the NBA Finals. Even the most die-hard Heat fan would have told you that a finals run was not to be expected when the playoffs began.
Yet here they are. And if their play in the NBA bubble is any indicator, the Heat have a real chance at winning the title.
Comprised of underdogs and outcasts with no superstar in sight, Heat general manager Pat Riley opted to build a roster focused on hard work and accountability, cultivating an attitude called “Heat culture.”
“Heat culture is having a warrior’s mentality – being part of bigger something yourself,” long-time Heat forward Udonis Haslem said in an interview with USA Today. “You’re in it collectively, having a mentality of coming together and sacrificing for your brother. It’s something we take seriously. You have to be committed mentally or your body will never follow. It’s demanding on and off the floor.”
The Heat are an anomaly among the rest of the NBA, built on heart and perseverance, not on advanced metrics and sleek offense.
Yet they have stifled the MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, taken down Jayson Tatum and the second-seeded Celtics and at the five seed, are the lowest-seeded team to ever make the NBA Finals.
“Teams like this are unique. A bunch of guys that have been overlooked in a lot of ways … A lot of guys in our locker room have been told that they are less than,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said during a Monday press conference.
However, the Heats still have to face their greatest test yet: LeBron James.
“The main key — and it’s been like this for a very long time — if you want to win, you’re going to have to go through a LeBron James-led team,” Miami forward Jimmy Butler said. “You’re going to get the same test over and over again until you pass it. That test is LeBron James.”
But if anyone is equipped to pass this test, it is the Miami Heat. James’ jumper has been shaky in the playoffs, shooting an average 35% from behind the arc.
Butler, a four-time NBA All-Defensive team selectee, is more than capable of limiting James and forcing him to rely on the Lakers’ shooters, who have been streaky during the playoffs.
Miami center Bam Adebayo also seems capable of frustrating the Lakers other potent weapon, Anthony Davis. Long, athletic and versatile, Adebayo showcased his defensive abilities against current NBA MVP Antetokounmpo, limiting his effectiveness.
Adebayo, who was selected to the 2nd NBA All-Defensive team this season, ranks second in defensive win shares in the NBA with 3.9, which is a stat that estimates the number of wins contributed by a player due to his defense.
Offensively, the Heat will turn to two of the hottest shooters in the NBA, Duncan Robinson and rookie Tyler Herro.
Robinson has shot a historic 46% from three this season and has become one of the most dangerous long-distance threats.
Herro too has shown a propensity to shoot the three efficiently, but perhaps the rookie’s greatest asset has been his clutch shooting. During the Bucks and Celtics series, Herro drained tough shot after tough shot, helping the Heat win tight games.
“[Herro] is comfortable in whatever position that you put him in,” Butler said. “He doesn’t really think or play like a rookie.”
The Heat’s sharpshooting duo will put a lot of pressure on the Laker guards to chase them off the three-point line, opening up driving lanes for Butler and Adebayo.
Ultimately, if the Heat can contain James and Davis and force the Lakers to rely on their role players, Miami has a great shot at pulling one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.
This task is much easier said than done. Butler even acknowledged this, saying it would take “near perfect” basketball to beat the Lakers. But in true Heat fashion, Butler and the Miami Heat aren’t worried about it.
“We’re capable of it,” Butler said. “We’re not worried about no five seed or one seed. We’re just gonna worry about us.”