The Finals are here. The Lakers, led by two superstars, will face the less top heavy but deeper Heat. LeBron James will look for his fourth title against the franchise in he won his first with, while Jimmy Butler will try to complete his redemption arc. It’s a fascinating matchup.
Are you at all surprised about either team making it this far, considering how they played in the bubble?
Marilyn Dubinski: I’m not surprised by the Lakers it making it. In an awkward situation where teams had to shake off some rust to get into a flow again and at a time when they usually aren’t playing, they always had the most sheer talent to fall back on as it took a while for the chemistry to return. It’s more surprising (and amusing) that the Clippers bombed out as badly as they did (and who saw the Doc Rivers departure coming?), but the end result in the West was to be expected.
In the East, I never saw the Heat making the Finals. I thought surely the Bucks would would learn from their mistakes last year and, similar to the Lakers, let their talent lead them to the Finals, but they flamed out again. In hindsight, it’s not too surprising that the Heat made it. Jimmy Butler has always had that championship DNA; he just needed a group of teammates who could handle and thrive under his “harsh” style of leadership, and he finally found one. Also kudos to Erik Spoelstra. There’s absolutely nothing not to like about him as a person or a coach, and at this point he’s clearly the best in the league behind Pop.
Mark Barrington: I’m not surprised by the Lakers making it, but maybe a little disappointed, because I was enjoying the Nuggets so much. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are so much fun to watch. If they can hold on to Jerami Grant and add some depth, they have a great shot of being back in the conference championship next year. But the Lakers have so much talent, it’s not just LeBron and AD, they have a talented roster, all they way down to playoff Rondo and a rejuvenated Dwight Howard, and can play a variety of styles.
To be honest, I never had a great handle on who was going to make it out of the East. I didn’t think the Heat were a legitimate threat until I started watching them in the bubble. Jimmy Butler is a tremendous leader, and Tyler Herro is way ahead of where I thought he would be now and Duncan Robinson is also peaking at the right time. Bam Adebayo is really really good. And they have the best coach in the Eastern Conference, so I shouldn’t have slept on them. My guess would have been the Raptors, but Pascal Siakam showed he’s not quite ready yet to lead a championship team. They should be in the mix next year with an additional year of experience.
Bruno Passos: The Lakers are the Lakers, and the Heat looked the part as soon as the playoffs began and, given the lack of a real contender in the East, aren’t that much of a shock. Did I expect Rajon Rondo to be an impact player, or Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson to key a Finals run? Definitely not, but neither team seems like a fluke.
The events that happened around those teams’ paths are probably the bigger surprises: the Clippers completely folding, Bucks falling flat, the countless buzzer beaters, and everything the Nuggets did still made for an extremely compelling postseason.
Jesus Gomez: I’m surprised about the Heat making it. They had to beat a Bucks team that was historically great in the regular season and a Celtics team that seemed to have more star power. It was fair to wonder if they had the firepower to do so, but the shocking emergence of Tyler Herro as a bona fide scorer took care of that.
The Lakers’ success was more predictable. They were always expected to at least make it to the conference finals and once the Clippers imploded, they seemed like a shoo-in to make it through the West.
J.R. Wilco: I was very surprised by the East. I was all-in on the Bucks, then the Raps, then the Celtics — not because I wanted any of those teams to win, I just felt like they were the better teams. And in each case, I was delightfully wrong. Miami has played with poise and grit and couldn’t be more excited for a franchise that I’ve never really had much love for. And Spoelstra showed that the argument about the best coach out East doesn’t begin and end with Brad Stevens.
The Lakers didn’t surprise me at all. And as much of a factor as Playoff Rondo is, no one on the roster compares to Playoff LeBron. (Although Davis has certainly proved himself.)
Are there any individual matchups or story lines that you are excited to follow?
Marilyn Dubinski: This is playing into a bit of homerism, but I’m intrigued to see what fellow Texas A&M alum Alex Caruso (born and raised in College Station, TX, thank you very much) does. On a team stacked with big names, this guy has become a folk hero in Los Angeles of all places. I loved his game ever since he stepped foot on campus. He modeled himself after Manu Ginobili, and I could see his potential to be Manu-lite back when he wasn’t on anyone’s draft radar and had to work his way up from the G-League. I won’t necessarily be rooting for the Lakers to win, but I can’t complain about the first Aggie making the NBA Finals since Walt Davis in 1958.
Mark Barrington: I want to see Jimmy Butler try to shut down LeBron James. He won’t be able to, but he will have an impact. I want to see how Bam Adebayo matches up against Dwight Howard. I want to see if Tyler Herro keeps up his stellar play, or whether the pressure of the Finals slows him down a bit. If I had to guess, I’d think that Tyler is going to continue to be a difference-maker for the Heat.
Bruno Passos: I actually had no idea Caruso was an Aggie and just assumed he was a piece of Laker fan fiction come to life. The matchups in this series are super intriguing across the board. Adebayo’s been a mismatch-maker in every series until now, but he’s facing up against an opponent with enough size to take him away as a roll threat. As well as the Lakers are positioned to defend inside, I like the advantage Miami has on the perimeter running Robinson and Herro off screens and using their various dribble penetrators to create breakdowns. Can the Heat’s suite of big wings do anything to slow LeBron down amid another age-less playoff run? Can Jimmy Butler ride his unflappable Eff You energy and be a top-two player in a series against Davis and LeBron, or is that duo enough to make this series a foregone conclusion?
Jesus Gomez: Bam vs. The Brow should be fun. Davis is the best big man in the league by a significant margin but Adebayo is a defensive beast who can also put pressure on Davis on the other end, potentially wearing him down. I expect the Lakers to give Dwight Howard minutes to protect Davis from wear and tear, and how the Heat respond to his offensive rebounding, especially when they are playing zone, will also be extremely interesting.
Beyond the battle inside, shooters could have a huge impact in this series. If Danny Green doesn’t snap out of his funk the Lakers’ spacing could suffer a lot. If Herro and Duncan Robinson start feeling the pressure, Miami just won’t have the firepower to hang.
J.R. Wilco: Everything LA likes to do features a heavy dose of either James or Davis, if not both. The reason for Denver’s struggles in the WCF was because they had no one to guard either of the Lakers’ best players … but the Heat does. The storyline that I think the series turns on is Miami’s ability to use Bam and Jimmy to keep Anthony and LeBron from dominating. The extent to which they can do that will determine how long the series goes.
The Spurs have history with both teams. Who are you rooting for and why?
Marilyn Dubinski: I’m always one to root for the underdog, so it has to be the Heat. Despite having some likeable guys like Caruso, I’ll always have trouble rooting the Lakers, and their unbearable fanbase on social media makes it even easier to root against them. LeBron James doesn’t really sway my vote one way or the other — I rooted against him in Miami (duh) but for him when his Cavs faced the Warriors because “underdog” — so the underdog status of this Heat squad plus my respect for Spoelstra has me rooting for them.
Mark Barrington: I think LeBron is the greatest player of this generation, and it would great for him to get another championship with yet another team. It would cement his place in history as one of the greatest players in the history of the league, if not THE greatest. But I like to root for underdogs, and even though I don’t think the Heat are that much of an underdog, I would like to see how their team-based game can compete with the star power of the Lakers. The Lakers have the two best players in the series, but the Heat have a lot of good players and Erik Spoelstra, one of the best coaches in the NBA. I expect this will be a close series, and mostly I’m excited about watching the games, since recent championship series have been pretty lopsided. (If the Lakers sweep, I will deny I ever said this.)
Bruno Passos: Last year felt like a real lose-lose scenario for Spurs fans, at least until the Warriors got decimated by injury and somehow morphed into their closest version to likable underdogs. This year, I’m happy being less tethered to the final result and able to enjoy whatever happens. I’d probably relish the novelty of this Miami group completing its run more than LeBron winning another, but at the same time it’ll be a treat to watch him get another ring and add to his legacy. Who knows how many more runs he has him in him like this? (Conservatively setting the over/under at, like, 5)
Jesus Gomez: The honest answer is neither. I can appreciate LeBron’s greatness and I used to love Anthony Davis back when he was actually fun to watch, but this Lakers team lacks flavor. I like Erik Spoelstra and I’ve almost forgiven Herro for destroying my beloved San Lorenzo in a preseason game back when he was in Kentucky (Keldon Johnson has been fully forgiven after his play in the bubble), but I find the discussion about the Heat Culture™ exhausting.
If I’m forced to pick a side, I’ll go with Miami, simply because LeBron would get one ring closer to Tim Duncan’s five if he were to win this one. Go Heat, I guess.
J.R. Wilco: Cheering for LeBron in Los Angeles feels too close to rooting for the casino in Las Vegas. Add to that my general aversion to the Lakers (can pretty much only cheer for them if they’re playing the Celtics) and Miami is an easy choice to support. The Heat’s egalitarian offense, the zone defense, the sublime coaching, and a superstar that makes everyone else better — it’s nearly enough to make me forget they’re Miami.