From the Bleachers: Can the Heat burst LeBron’s bubble?

by Baily Deeter | 9/29/20 2:00am

from_the_bleachers
by Sophie Bailey / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

We might have expected to see the Los Angeles Lakers clash with the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals in 2011, when Kobe Bryant and LeBron James would have led their respective squads into battle. In 2020? Not so much. 

Yet here we are, with the top-seeded Lakers and the fifth-seeded Heat squaring off in the bubble with NBA supremacy on the line. LeBron, after taking the Lakers to their first Western Conference Finals and their first NBA Finals in 10 years, now seeks to bring home championship number 17. His opponent lacks a superstar, but it certainly doesn’t lack chemistry, confidence and top-to-bottom talent. Only one team stands in the way of Miami becoming the first fifth seed to win an NBA championship. 

So let’s jump in. If you’d told a Lakers fan two months ago that they’d be facing Miami in the Finals, they would have been jumping for joy. The Lakers beat the Heat in both matchups this year, and they have the star power that the Heat just can’t match. LeBron and Anthony Davis, both All-NBA first team selections this season, are far and away the two best players in the series. 

Los Angeles, after a rocky start in Game 1 against the Portland Trail Blazers, has had relatively little trouble up to this point. It wore down Portland in a gentleman’s sweep, did the same to the Houston Rockets in the second round and finally ended the Denver Nuggets’ Cinderella run. During their run, the purple and gold eliminated Damian Lillard, James Harden and Nikola Jokić, generally considered three of the 10 best players in the NBA. The Heat, on the other hand, don’t have a top 10 player on their roster.  

But in these last 15 games, the Heat have absolutely dominated with a well-rounded team that plays together as well as any. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo have risen to the occasion as superb defenders and inside scorers, while Goran Dragić, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson provide the shooting that is so important in today’s NBA. After sweeping the fourth-seeded Indiana Pacers, eliminating the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in five games and besting the Boston Celtics in six, it’s clear that they must be taken seriously. 

Both teams enter the Finals with a 12-3 record in the playoffs, and both teams clearly cemented themselves as the best in their respective conferences. Now, in the year of the unexpected, I once again have no idea what to expect. 

Common sense says to pick the Lakers, who had the better regular season, won the head-to-head matchups and have the experience. LeBron is playing in his 10th Finals, and he has zero desire to lose a seventh. While he hasn’t been quite as dominant as he was in Cleveland up to this point in the playoffs, he hasn’t needed to be because of Davis’ dominance.  

Nonetheless, head coach Frank Vogel played him for 40 minutes in the decisive Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals (as opposed to his typical playing time around 35 minutes). When it came to eliminating the scrappy Nuggets, LeBron took matters into his own hands. He scored 38 points, 16 of which came in the fourth quarter, to go along with 16 rebounds and 10 assists. He became the first Laker to score 35-plus points and accumulate 15-plus rebounds in a playoff triple-double in 32 years. It was a performance for the ages in which he looked 27, not 35. 

LeBron has fallen short in the Finals multiple times, but for the first time since 2012, he won’t be facing the San Antonio Spurs or Golden State Warriors dynasties on the big stage. The Heat are by no means a superteam, and if LeBron plays at an MVP level, one would think it would be enough for Los Angeles to emerge victorious. LeBron has never had a sidekick like Davis before, and that could make all the difference at the end of the day. 

But nobody expected the Heat to be here at this stage in the season, and yet here they are. In the era of the 3-point shot, they’re carrying on Golden State’s legacy with their penchant for the long ball. Robinson ranked fourth in the regular season in 3-point shooting percentage, and the rookie Herro, who scored 37 points in Game 4 against Boston, has been remarkable as of late. Adebayo, whose block of Jayson Tatum at the end of Game 1 was one of the best plays of the season, is a phenomenal defender as well as an efficient scorer. 

And who could forget Butler, the heart and soul of the team. While many thought Butler chose Miami to enjoy the South Beach lifestyle at the expense of competing for championships, it turns out he had the right idea all along. His sound defense, stellar leadership and effective scoring have been instrumental during the team’s Cinderella run. 

Regardless of who wins, we can expect to see a competitive series with no shortage of major storylines. The obvious one centers around LeBron, who will be facing his former team and his former coach with a title on the line. LeBron won two championships in Miami in 2012 and 2013, but since his departure in 2014, the Heat had yet to win a playoff series before this season. After bringing two rings to Miami, it’s his job to prevent his old team from winning another. 

And who could ignore the rich history of the Lakers franchise, especially given Kobe Bryant’s tragic death in January. Bryant was at the center of the Lakers’ last five championships, winning Finals MVP in 2009 and 2010. But as Bryant aged and after he retired, the Lakers fell from grace in a way no one could have expected. In fact, in the five seasons before LeBron signed in free agency, they had the worst cumulative record in the NBA. But all it took was the king making the trip out west and one trade for Davis to restore the Lakers to their throne atop the West. 

LeBron has fully cemented himself as an NBA legend, but there’s nothing more he’d like than to add one more Larry O’Brien trophy to the collection at Staples Center. It seems only fitting that LeBron would forever entrench himself as not only an NBA legend but a Lakers legend, all in honor of the superstar who came before him.