Lakers Clobber Heat to Win 2020 NBA Finals
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In likely the wackiest NBA Playoffs ever, a familiar face finished out on top. LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in six games in the NBA Finals for the team’s record-tying 17th NBA title. With play from the NBA’s Orlando bubble finally concluded, here is a breakdown of the Lakers and the Heat, as well as an early look at the landscape of the league for next season, whenever that may be.
The Heat made a Cinderella run through the playoffs, downing favorites such as the Milwaukee Bucks to win the Eastern Conference Finals. Miami became the first fifth-seeded team to ever make the Finals. Before the playoffs, the Miami Heat were touted as a team with a young core and good pieces but lacking a true star. They were expected to be a first to second round exit by many.
Led by coach Erik Spoelstra, a three time NBA champion himself, the Heat, however, were able to engineer a dominant playoff run. The Heat swept the Pacers in the first round before easily dispatching title favorite and first seed in the Eastern Conference, Milwaukee Bucks, in five games. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat proceeded to beat the Celtics in six games. Leading up to the finals, all of the Heat’s losses were less than 10 points, and one occurred in overtime.
Miami kept up with the Lakers in Game 1 but lost key players, Goran Dragic, to a torn plantar fascia, and Bam Adebayo, to a shoulder injury. Due to the mounting injuries, the Heat couldn’t stop the Lakers and lost Game 1. Dragic was expected to miss the rest of the series indefinitely. A hobbled Miami Heat team was demolished in 2, but they came back to win Game 3 after an all time great Finals performance from Jimmy Butler, who had a 40 point triple double and left it all out on the court. Adebayo returned for Game 4 but as a shell of himself, and the Heat fell once again to the Lakers in Game 4. Butler willed the Heat to a tough win in Game 5 with a 35 point triple double, hitting clutch shots, but the team looked tired in Game 6 and lost the series.
The Heat’s defense was phenomenal in the playoffs, switching from 2-3 zone to man constantly. The high basketball IQ of Spoelstra combined with the talent of lengthy defenders Butler, Adebayo, Jae Crowder, and Andre Igoudala proved to form an elite defense. The Heat culture, defined by a gritty, unselfish, and defense-first mentality, was easily seen throughout the playoffs. All of the players bought in and prioritized winning over anything else, with Meyers Leonard being an example. He started for most of the regular season but saw little playing time throughout the playoffs. Instead of complaining, he stood and cheered with infectious energy throughout the whole playoffs. Five-time all star Butler was the team leader in the playoffs and stepped up in clutch moments. After being traded from the 76ers and Timberwolves because he was a “locker room cancer” who rattled the team’s younger players for not working hard enough, Butler was finally surrounded by people who wanted to win as badly as he did. He showed up in the Finals, scoring 30+ point triple doubles in Games 3 and 5. Without Dragic and Adebayo in Game 3, Butler had a monstrous 40 point night, taking over in the 4th quarter and mouthing to James, “You’re in trouble.” He proved to be capable of leading a team to a championship.
He was not without help, however, as many of the Heat’s young stars also performed well. Tyler Herro consistently gave the Heat offense off the bench and showed up in key moments, including a 37 point explosion against the Celtics. Duncan Robinson’s gravity as a shooter opened up the Heat’s offense and was a consistent threat on the floor. Adebayo and Dragic, who have both made all-star appearances, were the second and third best players on the team, respectively. Dragic played the best basketball of his career, leading the team in scoring with 20 points per game up until the Finals. Adebayo was a double-double machine throughout the playoffs and notably the best player in the Heat-Celtics series.
With their unprecedented run, Miami will become a very attractive destination to many free agents this offseason. Equipped with a young core, Heat will make many deep playoff runs to come. Butler has had a legacy-defining playoffs, going toe-to-toe with the GOAT in the Finals and playing about 47 minutes in each game. Spoelstra has added another Finals appearance to his resume and remains one of the elite coaches in the NBA. Though the team fell short of an NBA championship, Heat fans should be very excited about the coming seasons.
Los Angeles Lakers
This championship marks the 17th in Lakers history, tying them with the Celtics for the most NBA titles in league history, though they have won five more than Boston this decade. This championship win made James not only the fourth player to win a championship with three teams, but also the first to win Finals MVP on three different teams.
The importance of Anthony Davis for this team cannot be overstated. He was their anchor on defense while also being the most overqualified second option in the NBA. After Game 4, there was real debate as to who should win Finals MVP between Davis and James. Though Davis did not win the award, to be in that conversation with a player of James’s caliber is an accomplishment in and of itself.
The defining feature of this Lakers team was their defense. With a defensive-minded yet underrated head coach in Frank Vogel, possibly the best defender in the NBA in Davis, and a rotation chock full of capable defenders who completely bought into the defense-first philosophy, the Lakers had the undisputed best defense in the NBA playoffs. At times, it became almost impossible for their opponents to score in the half-court against them.
Though the Lakers possessed the best offensive and defensive engine a team could ask for in James and Davis, they still needed their role players to step up, and step up they did. The best Laker aside from Davis and James was Rajon Rondo, who has long held the reputation of someone who does not always show up in the regular season; a lot of Lakers fans questioned whether Rondo should even play in the playoffs after poor performance on both ends of the floor for two straight regular seasons. Despite his prior shortcomings, he almost immediately proved those questions to be unfounded. Rondo even set the playoff record for most assists off the bench in a single postseason after missing the first five games of the postseason. After Rondo, the most important player for this Lakers team was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was, like Rondo, not a fan favorite heading into this postseason, but showed he can play on the biggest of stages. In Game 4, it was five straight points from Caldwell-Pope that sealed the game for the Lakers, putting them up 3-1, a Finals lead that had only been come back from once.
Looking Toward Next Season
The longest season in NBA history came to a thrilling conclusion, with superstar Butler along with the Heat’s rising stars against the Lakers two-headed monster of James and Davis. In the next season, the hierarchy of the NBA could look very different.
Just one year removed from their fifth straight Finals appearance, the Warriors won just 15 of 65 regular season games in 2019-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst seasons in the organization’s history. They currently have one of the worst cap situations in the league with three max deals on their salary, not including the four-year, $100 million extension given to Draymond Green last summer. This heavily restricts them in free agency to low salary players and veteran minimum deals. Green, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson are all expected to return healthy after they all missed parts of last season. The Warriors will look to go on a revenge tour to return to their previous dominant play. They will look to use their Number 2 overall pick in this year’s draft to bolster their roster and become a contender once again.
Similar to the Warriors, the Brooklyn Nets will look to their stars returning to the league from major injuries to elevate them from pretenders to contenders. After signing a huge deal with the Nets, Kevin Durant missed all of this season following his Achilles rupture in the 2019 NBA Finals. Durant should be ready to go for training camp and hopefully return to his All-Everything caliber. The Nets hope that Kyrie Irving, who surprisingly decided to sit out of the bubble, will return as well. It is now up to the Nets and only the Nets to become contenders—they have the star power, the young talent, and an intriguing young coach in Steve Nash.
The Clippers have all the talent in the world, yet on the biggest stage they imploded and blew a 3-1 lead to a talented Denver Nuggets team. It was time for change in the other half of Los Angeles, and after the dismissal of NBA legend Doc Rivers, new coach Ty Lue will look to turn this team around. Despite Allen Iverson stepping over Lue in the most disrespectful play in NBA history, Lue has done quite well for himself as a coach, winning a championship in Cleveland with who else but James. All eyes will be on the fun guy, Kawhi Leonard, who has to live up to the hype. If he plays at the level he did for the Raptors and Spurs, not even Pandemic Paul George can stop this team from being championship contenders.
Finally, it's time to talk about the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo cannot do it alone. After he won Most Valuable Player for the second season in a row, the Bucks have a perennial MVP candidate on their hands. But it is not enough to simply give him Khris Middleton and say “go win a championship.” They need to sign Antetokounmpo to a max extension and look to surround him with capable 3-point shooters. Look for the Bucks to make a run at 3-point ace Joe Harris in free agency.
Though the landscape of the NBA will certainly look different come the 2021 season, we are in for some fantastic basketball.