NBA

NBA Finals: Lakers-Heat has 2014 parallels & Miami will need Kawhi-esque standout for depth to triumph over star power

By Sports Desk September 30, 2020

The Miami Heat were up 22-6 in Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals, with one of the greatest teams ever assembled looking primed to cut their series deficit to 3-2 against the San Antonio Spurs.

But any hope of a miraculous turnaround from LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was snatched away as Gregg Popovich's Spurs went on a 39-15 run that turned the tide.

Manu Ginobili's step-back three capped that 24-point turnaround, delighting a raucous AT&T Center crowd that revelled in the Spurs taking an eight-point lead into half-time.

The star-studded Heat wilted thereafter and San Antonio's advantage ballooned to 22 points, the Spurs going on to claim a 104-87 victory that secured Tim Duncan's fifth NBA title in what proved to be LeBron's last game with the Heat.

It was a triumph of depth over star power. That is not to say the Spurs did not have stars, as Duncan, Ginobli and Tony Parker were already established as legends in San Antonio and Kawhi Leonard would join them with his performance in the Finals.

However, the Heat were favourites for a reason. Between four-time MVP James, a former scoring champion in Wade and a versatile jump-shooting center in Bosh, the Heat should have had enough to complete the three-peat.

Yet the top-heavy nature of their roster proved the undoing of Miami, with Popovich getting a greater level of contributions from a deeper group of players and Leonard producing an outstanding individual performance to earn Finals MVP.

Fast forward to 2020 and LeBron is in his 10th Finals. The Heat are now the opponents for LeBron's Los Angeles Lakers, with the series starting on Wednesday, but the situation - save for the lack of fans - is markedly similar.

In James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers have two players who were in the running for the MVP award won by Giannis Antetokounmpo but they are going up against a Heat side whose remarkable depth has seen off the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics for the loss of just three games.

Jimmy Butler has been the star of the show for the Heat in the postseason and, while the expectation is that the Lakers will emerge with a 17th NBA title, Butler and the Heat look to have personnel to replicate the feats of Leonard and the Spurs six years ago.

SPURS THWART BIG THREE

James was at his brilliant best in 2014, as he led the Heat with 28.2 points per game, shooting 51.9 per cent from three-point range and 57.1 per cent from the field in the Finals.

However, only two other players in Wade (15.2) and Bosh (14) averaged double-digit points. Ray Allen (9.8) and Michael Beasley (9) were closest to joining the Big Three in that group.

That is not surprising, but there is clear disparity when you compare those numbers to what the Spurs put up across the five games.

Parker's points-per-game average of 18 was well shy of that of LeBron. However, Leonard (17.8), Duncan (15.4), Ginobili (14.4) and Patty Mills (10.2) all joined him in double figures.

In other words, the Heat had the most dominant player, but the Spurs had more productive options to turn to, and that could again be the case when LeBron faces his former team in Orlando.

HEAT EVEN STRONGER THAN SAN ANTONIO?

The 2019-20 Heat are the antithesis of the 2013-14 vintage, with their strength in depth critical to Miami seeing off the Antetokounmpo-led Bucks in five games and then defeating the Celtics in six.

Indeed, the case can be made that they are even deeper than the Spurs of six years ago. Goran Dragic (20.9) and Butler (20.7) are each averaging 20 points per game in the postseason, with Bam Adebayo (18.5), Tyler Herro (16.5), Jae Crowder (12.3) and Duncan Robinson (11.3) all in double figures.

Back in 2014, Parker was the Spurs' top scorer in the postseason with 17.4, Duncan had 16.3 with Ginobili and Leonard each on 14.3.

In terms of pure scoring, the Heat are better equipped to deal with the challenge posed by LeBron than the Spurs were in 2014.

However, the Lakers have the advantage of Davis playing on the same level as James. Davis (28.8 points per game) is the Lakers' leading scorer in the postseason, with James averaging 26.7.

The presence of two MVP-calibre players performing to that standard heightens the need for a Leonard-esque performance from a member of the Heat.

WHO WILL PLAY THE KAWHI ROLE?

Leonard was majestic in the 2014 Finals. In addition to leading San Antonio in points per game, he averaged 1.2 blocks per game and shot 57.9 per cent from beyond the arc.

The MVP came more for his defense on LeBron than for his outstanding shooting and, while Butler has led the way in terms of average points, the Heat may need to look elsewhere for a player who can replicate Leonard's impact on both ends of the floor.

Andre Iguodala earned the Finals MVP in 2015 with the Golden State Warriors for his efforts in stopping LeBron and hit all four of his three-point attempts in the Game 6 win over the Celtics.

Miami will need to throw multiple players at James and Davis to have a hope of slowing them down, yet the numbers leave little doubt as to who is the leading candidate to have a Finals performance akin to that of Leonard.

Adebayo is shooting 57.1 per cent from the field, though that has all come from inside the arc, and has been dominant on the boards.

His average of 11.4 rebounds is the fourth-most in the postseason and, while others will need to carry the load in terms of deep shooting, it is he who has the best hopes of excelling at both ends.

The odds are stacked against Miami but, in a unique NBA season, it would be foolish to count them out. Six years on from their last Finals appearance, the Heat have the roster to pull off the upset and make sure that this time they are the ones celebrating a victory for strength in numbers.

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    DOMINIC CALVERT-LEWIN

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