The last time the Lakers made the NBA Finals in 2010, it was their 31st trip to the Finals in 64 seasons of the league. Essentially, every time a season tipped off, the Lakers had a 50/50 chance of winning their conference that year.
That ratio has gone down in the intervening years. When Game 1 starts tomorrow, the Lakers will have participated in 32 of 74 NBA Finals, still a staggering rate, but the ten-year gap demonstrates just how hard it actually is to get back to that hallowed stage. Finals appearances are no longer a guarantee for Lakers teams; it is hard to make it this far.
Rajon Rondo has spent ten years waiting for a chance to redeem his last Finals trip. Dwight Howard thought he would be regularly playing in June (or whenever the Finals are staged), but he hasn’t been back since 2009. Even a one-year absence for LeBron James spawned a #WashedKing #RevengeSZN narrative.
Getting to this point is celebratory in and of itself. That doesn’t mean the Lakers are satisfied to be conference champions — the franchise doesn’t even hang these banners. But it’s a worthy accomplishment, one that should be recognized no matter the outcome of this series.
But make no mistake: the goal is still to win. And to do so, the Lakers will have to be better than they have been at any stretch of this postseason because the Heat will demand it. This is no ordinary No. 5 seed, and not just because Miami likely would have been the No. 4 seed had homecourt advantage been at stake.
During the Western Conference playoffs, the Lakers were the more adaptable team in each series. They changed their defensive coverages and rotations throughout. While Portland, Houston, and Denver were each rooted in a singular style of play, the Lakers adjusted to every opponent. JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard, J.R. Smith, and Talen Horton-Tucker all came in and out of the lineup depending on what was necessary, but the Blazers, Rockets, and Nuggets each had one speed.
The Heat resemble the Lakers in their versatility. They debuted an entirely new starting lineup in the bubble and have mostly excised regular-season starters Kendrick Nunn and Meyers Leonard from the rotation altogether. Kelly Olynyk comes and goes, as does Derrick Jones Jr., and like the Lakers, the Miami players have taken every role change in stride.
Part of the reason the Heat are so malleable is that their offense doesn’t rely on any one primary creator. It would be dismissive to say they aren’t “star”-powered like the Lakers, considering the talent they possess, but the Heat do have a more equitable division of labor.
Goran Dragic, Jimmy Butler, and Bam Adebayo each led the team in scoring in successive playoff rounds, and they all present different ways of attacking the Lakers. Dragic is a classic pick-and-roll operator who is deadly at the rim and beyond the arc. Butler is an isolation scorer who does his damage in the paint and by getting to the foul line; he does the grunt work on offense of setting screens and setting up his teammates, but he’s also comfortable with the ball in his hands down the stretch of close games. Adebayo is a hand-off savant who might even be the hub of the starting unit. And that’s without even considering Tyler Herro, who Boston couldn’t find a way to stay in front of during the conference finals.
The Lakers knew who to key in on during the previous three rounds. They’ll have to be more attentive to the full roster — and all of the off ball action that takes place — against Miami. That will be critical to limiting the Heat’s 3-point attempts as well. The Lakers have been diligent all season about chasing teams off the 3-point line, and especially so during the playoffs, and will have to continue that trend against a Miami team that shoots a high volume from beyond the arc.
The Heat also have tremendous flexibility on the defensive end. They’ve varied their looks each round, keeping things conventional against the Pacers before building a wall around Giannis Antetokounmpo and then unleashing a zone for long stretches against the Celtics.
The Lakers have to feel good about their chances when hunting switches against a man-to-man defense with two superior isolation scorers in Anthony Davis and LeBron James, even if the Heat have a parade of quality wing defenders in Butler, Andre Iguodala, and Jae Crowder. Double teams don’t really work against James, and Davis has become more adept at navigating blitzes as the playoffs have gone on.
The zone is an interesting wrinkle, though. On one hand, the Lakers are shooting-challenged, and Miami would be perfectly content to let Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green fire away from distance if that kept the ball out of James and Davis’ hands. But the Lakers have a few advantages that make a zone tenuous. They have multiple lob threats in Davis, McGee, and Howard, who can rise up over the back line of the zone. Davis is also a perfect zone buster from the high post, a triple threat who can drive, pass, and shoot when he gets the ball in the lane. Those floaters that Davis used to beat the Nuggets will be readily available against a zone defense.
Maybe the Heat scrap the gimmicks and just play Adebayo on Davis one-on-one, trusting their all-defense honoree to put the clamps on his fellow Kentucky Wildcat. But that means Adebayo can’t help elsewhere, leaving James to attack with Miami’s rim protector otherwise occupied.
The 2019-20 Lakers have been James’ team. He is the leader on and off the court, and the team follows his example. The gap in Lakers’ Finals appearances means that this team collectively doesn’t have as much championship experience as you might think, but James individually has oodles of it, and he’ll have to show the way, like he did in the fourth quarter of Game 5 versus Denver.
It’s fitting that James will have to take an instructional role against Miami, the organization where he learned how to be a winner himself. He went through those growing pains so that he could build a champion on his own, and that’s what he has attempted to do in Los Angeles. James knows what it means to have this opportunity, to be four wins away from a title. This may be his 10th finals, but he only has three rings, far fewer than Pat Riley had when he dropped them on the table ten years ago at a meeting in South Beach.
James came to the Lakers for this moment. He brought in Davis so that the younger superstar could experience it for himself, and he’s been grooming Davis for this stage all season. Now is the time when those lessons come to fruition.
The Lakers have historically belonged in the NBA Finals. So has LeBron James. This is their chance to mark their territory.