Ryan Grube, Contributing Writer
Even since the departure of LeBron James, who decided to return to Cleveland following the 2014 NBA Finals, the Miami Heat have been able to stay afloat and remain competitive in an increasingly-tough Eastern Conference.
Now in the 2020 NBA Finals against the Lakers, Miami is faced with a hefty challenge, but its depth and lethal dosage of scoring options gives it more than enough weapons to overcome monsters James and Anthony Davis.
The steady success can be attributed to the remarkable coaching of Erik Spoelstra, as well as the high-level front office work by team president Pat Riley and company. Over the past several seasons, they’ve stockpiled young, productive draft picks –– along with serviceable veterans –– to generate a solid, all-around roster.
The rebuilding effort came full circle during the 2019-20 campaign with Miami advancing all the way to the NBA Finals to square off with James and the Lakers.
The Heat’s loaded roster yielded a 44-29 record during the regular season, with 13 additional wins now coming in the playoffs.
Using their unique combination of young guards and veteran forwards, the Heat possess the necessary depth and talent — particularly at the forward position with Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala — to match up with the Lakers.
Spoelstra and company struggled mightily to contain James, Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso in the paint during Game 1 of the Finals on Sept. 30.
Miami’s zone defenses open up an opportunity to reduce the number of easy baskets for the Lakers. By collapsing on the Lakers’ offense, the Heat can trigger kickout passes for jump shots, as opposed to wide-open layups.
The Heat were able to accomplish this in Game 3 on Oct. 4, when they forced the Lakers into taking 42 threes, compared to just 37 2-pointers. Los Angeles converted on only 14 of the 3-pointers.
If the Heat refer to their roots and stop the opposing ball handler before they get to the rim, the Lakers could be forced into more cold-shooting spells.
In the meantime, Miami needs to focus on its forced turnovers. Los Angeles currently ranks 14th out of 16 teams in turnovers per game at 15.6 per contest.
“Look, I love these guys. I love the way we compete,” Spoelstra told ESPN following Game 2. “We have to figure out how to overcome this and get over the top.”
Game 3 brought better results in the turnover department for Miami, who pushed the Lakers into 19 total turnovers, including eight by James.
James had six more turnovers in Game 4 on Oct. 6, but the Heat were only able to generate nine other giveaways by Los Angeles.
If the Heat can exploit Los Angeles’ turnover weakness in the remaining games of the series, their chances to upset the West’s No. 1 seed would significantly increase.
Miami has assembled the true “underdog” team in their quest to the Finals, sporting a roster with just one All-NBA selection in Jimmy Butler, who was named to the third-team.
The pure shooting ability of Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Crowder, along with the dominant inside play of Bam Adebayo, has propelled the Heat to the top of the Eastern Conference.
The combination of James and Davis has been dominant over the course of the regular season and continues into the Orlando bubble. The duo is averaging just over 55 points per game during Los Angeles’ playoff run.
However, the Heat cycle through a variety of zone defenses, which, if executed properly, can slow the Lakers’ tempo, making it much harder for James to get downhill and dish passes to Davis and open shooters.
Miami’s zone looks are designed to prevent uncontested looks at the rim, and to force opposing teams to knock down perimeter jump shots — something Los Angeles has struggled to do this season.
Miami emerged as the “Cinderella team” of the 2020 NBA Bubble Playoffs, beginning its playoff run with just the eighth-best odds out of 16 teams to be crowned NBA champions.
Now, the Heat are in prime position to capture their first Finals title since James made the return to Cleveland.
If the Heat can sharpen up their zone defense, and if they can create more giveaways by the Lakers, Spoelstra and Riley could very well be hoisting this year’s NBA Finals trophy.