Dissecting Data, 2020 NBA Finals edition — Who has the edge, Lakers or Heat?

Warren de Guzman and Edson Guido, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 30 2020 03:39 PM

Dissecting Data, 2020 NBA Finals edition — Who has the edge, Lakers or Heat? 1
Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler defends Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, in Miami. The Lakers won 113-110. Lynne Sladky, AP/file

The NBA has served as an inspiration and an escape from the terrors of this COVID-19 pandemic. 

It was the first professional sports league to take on the challenge of restarting its season amid the pandemic. It has successfully carried out additional regular season games, and a full postseason in a bubble environment, proving organized sports can exist and thrive during a pandemic. 

Even now, the PBA is starting its own "bubble" experiment in Clark, Pampanga, to revive its own stalled basketball season. This is a most welcome development, because it brings a sense of normalcy back to the world. It allows us to feel secure even as we continue to battle a terrible and virulent disease. It allows us to believe that there are certain things the virus cannot take away. For a basketball crazy nation like the Philippines, it means the world. More than just a welcome distraction, it provides hope for so many young Filipinos aspiring for greatness in the sport.

Now, we are about to be treated to the highest level of basketball in the world, the NBA finals. The table has been set. It will be the Los Angeles Lakers against the Miami Heat.

The ABS-CBN Data Analytics Team has broken down the numbers. Let’s dig in.


Overall: Lakers 12-3, Heat 12-3
Offensive rating: Lakers 115.6 (2nd), Heat 113.4 (4th)
Defensive rating: Lakers 107.8 (5th), Heat 108.9 (7th)

(Source: stats.nba.com
The NBA bubble playoff record of the Lakers and Heat are identical. The Lakers’ offensive rating is second in the playoffs, while its defense is fifth overall. The Heat are rated fourth and seventh in offense and defense respectively. Just based on what they’ve accomplished so far, the Lakers appear to be a heavy favorite. But the road to the finals for these two teams have been quite different. 


West Finalist:
Lakers 3rd

West Opponents:
Blazers 27th
Rockets 15th
Nuggets 16th
East Finalist:
Heat 12th

East Opponent:
Pacers 6th
Bucks 1st
Celtics 4th
(Source: stats.nba.com)
The Lakers faced off against a depleted Portland Trailblazers in the first round, an experimental micro-ball Houston Rockets team in the second round, and a highly resilient Denver Nuggets team that had just made back-to-back recoveries from 3-1 deficits. The defense of all three teams was already questionable going into the playoffs. The best defensive rating out of all three Lakers opponents was that of the Rockets, who ranked 15th in the regular season. The Los Angeles Clippers were supposed to be the biggest test for the Lakers, but they failed to make it to the Western Conference Finals. LeBron James may have said making the Finals in the bubble was the most challenging thing he’s ever done as a professional ball player. It certainly could have been tougher.
The Miami Heat, meanwhile, faced three of the top 6 defensive teams in the regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks (#1 team in the regular season), the Indiana Pacers, and the Boston Celtics. Other than a few chippy Eastern Conference Finals games with the C’s, the Heat managed to demolish these extremely strong defensive teams with ease. They had the same record as the Lakers in the playoffs, 12 wins and 3 losses, despite facing much tougher defensive opposition. It could be argued that the Heat competition was also at a disadvantage. The Bucks had the reigning back-to-back MVP and current Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he was somewhat diminished by a bad ankle, which he injured in Game 3. The disciplined Pacers meanwhile were also without key big man Domantas Sabonis, while star Victor Oladipo was just recovering from a severe knee injury. The Celtics again put up a fight, but they also did so without a 100% Gordon Hayward, who suffered from an ankle injury early in the postseason. 
That said, nobody expected the Heat to make it to the Finals. Yet here they are, outperforming all expectations. 


November 8: Lakers beat Heat, 95-80 (Heat's lowest point total of the season)
December 13: Lakers beat Heat, 113-110

(Source: stats.nba.com)
Looking at the two regular season matchups of LA and Miami, the Lakers won both. The first was in November, a 15 point trouncing of Miami by LA. The next meeting was in December, when the Lakers beat the Heat by just 3 points. These may not mean much in the Finals when defensive intensity and attention to detail are light years away from regular season competition. However, the performance of the players in the two games will still be used by coaches to figure out how to match up well.

Dissecting Data, 2020 NBA Finals edition — Who has the edge, Lakers or Heat? 2
Jimmy Butler is expected to spearhead the Heat's attack. Reuters


Anthony Davis (29.5 ppg) vs Bam Adebayo (11.5 ppg)
LeBron James (26.5 ppg) vs Jimmy Butler (22.5 ppg)
Restricted Area shooting:

Anthony Davis: 11/11
LeBron James: 11/16
Anthony Davis shooting against Bam Adebayo -- 6/14

(Source: stats.nba.com)
The two stars of LA, LeBron James and Anthony Davis both shot at least 50% from the field in both regular season games. Both LeBron and AD outscored Miami’s Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in the two meetings. They also destroyed Miami when they attacked the paint to score in the restricted area. 
A key stat here is Adebayo’s defense against Davis, who shot 6 for 14 against Miami’s star big man.


Anthony Davis vs Bam Adebayo

Anthony Davis: 28.8 ppg (#1 among remaining players), 9.3 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.2 bpg, 1.2 spg
Bam Adebayo: 18.5 ppg, 11.4 rpg (#1 among remaining players), 4.9 apg, 0.9 bpg, 1.2 spg
(Source: stats.nba.com)
In the playoffs, Davis and Adebayo are more important to their teams than ever, but for different reasons. Davis is a scoring machine, leading all remaining players in the finals at close to 30 points per game. He is also rebounding at a respectable rate, and blocking at least 1 shot per game. Adebayo meanwhile leads all remaining players in rebounds at 11 boards per game. Adebayo is also dishing out 5 assists per game (leading Miami in this category), and will be the best passing big man on the floor in the Finals. Bam is also a beast on defense, excelling at positional defense and anchoring their zone defense, while blocking and forcing turnovers at a similar rate to Davis. The two will be critical for their respective teams on offense and defense. Theirs will be a key matchup in the finals. 


LeBron James: 26.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 8.9 apg, 1.0 bpg, 1.3 spg
Andre Iguodala: 4.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.3 apg, 0.7 bpg, 1.0 spg
LeBron James leads the postseason with 11 double-doubles and four triple-doubles. His 7.5 fastbreak points per game is also #1 in the playoffs.
LeBron is shooting 44 percent on 139 field goal attempts when guarded by Iguodala

(Source: stats.nba.com; ESPN Stats & Info)
LeBron James meanwhile is in a class of his own. He leads the postseason with 11 double-doubles and 4 triple-doubles. That means he has had 11 games with two statistical categories in double figures, and four games with 10 or more points, rebounds and assists. He is a one man fast break, with 7.5 fastbreak points per game, best in the playoffs. He will no doubt dominate the Finals as its main figure, having won two NBA Championships with the Miami Heat (His 3rd was won with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016). He has been to 10 NBA Finals, that is more finals appearances than all but 3 NBA franchises! Only four players in league history have been to 10 or more Finals, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Sam Jones. James is also a popular player here in the Philippines, having travelled here multiple times to share his knowledge of basketball. He will no doubt be a fan favorite.
The Miami Heat however has a player who has played against LeBron in all of his NBA finals appearances since 2015, Andre Iguodala. 

Marc Spears of ESPN's The Undefeated notes that no one has defended LeBron James as much as Andre Iguodala since the 2015 NBA Finals. Based on ESPN stats, Lebron James shot just 44% against Iguodala, a 10 percentage point difference from his average in this year’s playoffs of 54.7%. Iguodala’s stats in the bubble are not impressive, but he is a clutch player, scoring 15 points with a perfect 4 for 4 shooting from 3 to help the Heat clinch their ticket to the Finals. Igoudala will definitely have something to say when it comes to stopping James.

Dissecting Data, 2020 NBA Finals edition — Who has the edge, Lakers or Heat? 3
Duncan Robinson has provided the Heat with timely shooting. AP


Players averaging at least 11 ppg:
LAL: Davis (28.8), James (26.7)
MIA: Dragic (20.9), Butler (20.7), Adebayo (18.5), Herro (16.5), Crowder (12.3), Robinson (11.3)
(Source: stats.nba.com)
For Miami, the news will likely focus around Adebayo, Butler and Iguodala. However, Miami has much more depth than that. Only two players are averaging at least 11 points per game in LA, and they have already been discussed in detail. Miami has six players averaging over 11 points per game. Butler and Adebayo lead the way alongside veteran guard Goran Dragic who is actually the Heat’s leading scorer. Another defensive specialist, Jae Crowder, rounds out Miami’s offensive depth chart with over 12 points per game. Any of these players can explode, and the young guys (Herro and Robinson) in particular have shown some firepower in stretches. The more senior players meanwhile provide more steady scoring. Because of this depth, LA will have a hard time focusing its defense. Miami, on the other hand, can hone in all of its defensive effort on James and Davis and dare the other guys to beat them.


No. 1 in the playoffs:

49.6 points in the paint
70.9% FG% in the restricted area (Davis and James rank 1st and 2nd)
23.3 points in transition
5.7 blocks per game
15.0 deflections per game
No. 2 in the playoffs:
18.5% of their possessions are in transition
13.3 post-ups per game
(Source: stats.nba.com)
The Lakers can counter any Miami defense by scoring fast. Miami has the third worst transition defense in the playoffs, allowing nearly 1.2 points per possession on the break. The Lakers lead the playoffs in points in transition. The Heat were able to hold the Lakers to fewer than 10 fast break points per game in the regular season, the only team to do so, but that was a lifetime ago. These are the Finals. 
If LA has to score against a set Miami defense, it will have to attack the paint. They do that well, leading the playoffs with nearly 50 points in the paint per game. Miami can use Bam Adebayo to protect the paint, but their frontline is a bit thin, especially when compared to LA’s front line of Davis, Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris and JaVale McGee. Miami will ask Crowder, Iguodala, and maybe Kelly Olynyk to help out on that end.

Dissecting Data, 2020 NBA Finals edition — Who has the edge, Lakers or Heat? 4
LeBron James is looking to add a 4th NBA title to his storied career. AFP


177 possessions of zone (most in the playoffs)
Lakers scored 39 points against 35 Heat zone possessions in the regular season
(Source: stats.nba.com)
To mask the thin front court, Miami has used a lot of zone defense, which effectively neutralizes man to man schemes to get open shots, because players defend zones instead of sticking with a specific player. Miami has had 177 possessions of zone defense, most in the bubble playoffs (all against Boston). LA scored 39 points against 35 Heat zone possessions in the regular season. The Lakers have also scored 0.93 points per possession against the zone in this year’s playoffs. That is actually a pretty good scoring rate, third among teams who’ve faced at least 10 possessions of zones in the postseason. But again, things will be different in the Finals. The Lakers may also use the same tactic against the Heat, as Miami is ranked ninth in terms of scoring against the zone in this year’s playoffs. 


Games that went to crunch time (within 5 points in the last 5 minutes)
Win-Loss Record:
MIA: 9-2 (best win % in the playoffs)
LAL: 5-2 (3rd best win % in the playoffs)
Best 1st quarter team vs best 4th quarter team
LAL's net rating in 1st qtr: +16.1, 1st in the playoffs
MIA's net rating in 4th qtr: +17.8, 1st in the playoffs
(Source: stats.nba.com)
Coaching will also be an issue. James recognizes that his former coach in Miami, Fil-Am Erik Spoelstra, is very good. His LA coach, Frank Vogel, is making his NBA Finals debut. Coaching experience is on Miami’s side. Spoelstra has also coached Miami to the best win percentage in the bubble playoffs in games within 5 points or less in the last 5 minutes. That is a clear cut sign of a well-coached team. Miami is also the best performing team in fourth quarters in the bubble, thanks to the heroics of Butler and Herro who have been clutch this year. LA meanwhile likes to start fast and end games early, it's the best rated first quarter team in the playoffs. The Lakers had a memorable win at the buzzer thanks to an Anthony Davis game winner from 3. But Miami is better in the clutch, with all their four wins against Boston in crunch time.
The Lakers are very effective in winning with a lead, and have won all 12 games it has led by double digits. But Miami is also the only team with a winning record after trailing by double digits, with 5 wins against only 2 losses in such games. Miami will be tough and resilient.
If Miami weathers the first quarter storm of LA, and manages to get its own double digit lead heading into the fourth quarter, the Lakers might fold. LA has lost all three games it has trailed by double digits. 
There are no predictions here. Just data, and the hope the NBA finals will be hard fought, entertaining and inspirational for us all.