The NBA play-offs this year were always going to bring extra drama and excitement, as throughout lockdown sports fans waited faithfully to see their beloved teams and athletes resume service. Excitement and buzz among these fans, deprived of sporting action, had well and truly skyrocketed.
To enable the NBA play-offs to take place teams gathered in Orlando, at Disneyworld, in a secure bubble. Players, staff and trainers had isolated from their families for months on end, a huge commitment to make to give back to fans what they’ve so dearly missed.
This format was ostensibly an equaliser. No longer did upmarket teams such as the Lakers’ and Celtics enjoy a healthy homecourt advantage, a factor usually elevated in the play-offs, and teams were also required to share equipment, courts, facilities and so on. Therefore, in the bubble, the metaphorical curtains were pulled back for teams, whose true basketball abilities and play-off credentials lay more exposed than ever before.
This was intuitively a good thing and, as a result, these play-offs felt incredibly genuine as we saw a revival in the technical ‘x’ versus ‘y’ side of basketball analytics. Perhaps its clearest conclusion was this: teams built on flawed systems that survive in the regular season would flounder.
Take the Milwaukee Bucks, led by MVP and defensive player of the year Giannis Antetokounmpo, who blazed out to the quickest play-off qualification in NBA history and stretched their legs on towards the best regular season record. During this spell, analysts and fans alike adored the team and their success, predicting them to win it all. It was a surprise for all of us then when they were resoundingly knocked out by the Miami Heat 4-1. Possession after possession, Miami double teamed Antetokounmpo, taking away his patented spin move and causing him to overexert.
But enough of the Bucks. I only mention them to illustrate the key theme of this year’s play-offs: that classically ‘good’ basketball, characterised by ball movement, efficient shot choices, and adaptive defence, prevailed.
Where did all of this leave us then? The NBA Finals. Miami vs LA. Two teams built on excellent teamwork, involvement of players outside the ‘superstar’ category, and gritty determination.
We’ll start with Miami, who since their last title run in 2014 have been in basketball limbo. Never good enough to penetrate deep into the play-offs, neither bad enough to tank and win a high lottery pick in the draft, the past five or so years have been predictable. A team searching for that extra spark, but never having a place to look, but that all changed last summer with the arrival of 6’7″ swingman, five time All-Star and former Most Improved Player Jimmy Butler.
The two were a match made in heaven. Butler’s previous criticism of teammates he deemed to be lazy has married up beautifully with Miami’s ‘work till you puke’ culture. It doesn’t stop there. By shipping off bad contracts and bad players, and inserting Bam Adebayo into the starting lineup, GM Pat Riley and Head Coach Erik Spolestra had cut the proverbial fat. This season has represented a real refinement across the organisation, and the results have shown on the hardwood.
In a lot of ways the Lakers have also been in limbo, taking a curious line over the last decade since their championship win in 2010. Unable to fill the roster properly around the late stages of Kobe Bryant’s career, they’ve been characterised by underperforming high round picks, such as Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram – a far cry from what we expect from the storied Lakers franchise.
Two years ago, a certain LeBron James left his hometown Cleveland for warmer climes in LA, bringing with him instant play-off potential. A groin strain derailed that first season quite spectacularly, but set up a blockbuster trade for the game’s premier big man, Anthony Davis, to join them for the 2020-2021 campaign. Quite predictably, these two have been outstanding this season, joining one another on the All NBA First team.
Yet on building this team, Lakers management knew that this would not be enough. Therefore, they filled the roster with excellent role players, veterans with no ego in the way, and hungry young talent. They had the ideal combination, as once their superstar artillery started to misfire they had great basketball fundamentals to fall back on. They were the favourite for this Finals matchup, but how did it all unravel?
Game 1. Lakers win. A great start for the Lakers, and not particularly hard fought. Both Davis and LeBron seemed to have their pedal on the gas straight away, blowing the Heat away 116-98 and piling in with 59 points combined. Dynamic on the inside, they eliminated Miami’s zone defence with intelligent passing, full of awareness and vision. On the other side, Miami couldn’t get their shooters, namely Duncan Robinson, going from downtown. Robinson didn’t even register a point.
Game 2. Lakers win. The same story. Although this time, it’s more acceptable. Game one had sidelined two of Miami’s key pieces, Adebayo and Goran Dragic, so getting out-rebounded by Davis and LeBron was a foregone conclusion. At times, this was hard to watch. Seeing the effort that Miami poured in, while utterly outgunned, was a tough pill to swallow. 2-0 then for the Lakers, and analysts predicted a sweep.
Game 3. Miami win. Absolutely stunning. There he was, a knight in shining armour, Jimmy Butler III. His individual performance, in the context of being 2-0 down to a superior team, having two of your best players injured, and all the momentum against you, is all the more impressive. 40 points, 11 assists, 13 rebounds. It speaks for itself, but to pull this out the bag with the series on the line, was truly spectacular. If the Lakers win the championship, I’ll predict now though, it’ll be one of the most slept-on performances in Finals history, held to godly status by Heat fans alone.
Game 4. Lakers win. Boring game. No big performances from the stars, save for the usual LeBron highlights. Up until now, this series has been about the superstars, despite all the waffle earlier about ball movement and teamwork. This game however, both teams needed their depth to step up. For the Lakers, a big performance from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope by setting the tone with big buckets in the first quarter. Miami answered with a 20 year old rookie, Tyler Herro, fearlessly scoring 21. Butler and Bam, now back in the starting lineup, faltered.
Game 5. Miami win. A thriller that came down to the wire. 111-108, with the lead exchanging hands almost every possession in the closing seconds. Butler seemed to simply shrug off a superhuman 40-point effort from LeBron James. Gritty defence, clutch free throw shooting. Butler could do no wrong, even under the highest pressure. Shades of Michael Jordan, dare I say? Robinson, who couldn’t score a few games ago, redeemed himself thoroughly, piling in 26 points on excellent efficiency. Good enough to set the highest scoring output in the NBA Finals by an undrafted player, ever.. Miami would not roll over and accept defeat.
Game 6. Lakers win the championship 4-2. All credit should go to them, they fought hard against an exceptionally capable Miami team who simply weren’t going to back down. Accurate, intelligent shooting leads to high percentage baskets and Miami couldn’t keep up with Lakers’ steadfast composure in the final game. A valiant effort from Bam nonetheless, scoring 25 in an elimination game and showing real maturity as an emerging star in this league. Unfortunately, Butler seemed to have run out of gas. It’s rare that both sets of fans go home proud, happy, and optimistic. This is one of those cases.
Lakers fans walked home with another banner hanging in the rafters, their spirit contented, which was ripped in two when Kobe Bryant died in January. We know he is looking down with a smile right now. Miami fans walked home joyful: they were the underdog that achieved more than they had any right to, and whose future looks extremely bright. We now expect to see in the Finals next year, with another year under their belt.
Image: _Hadock_ via Creative Commons