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What the Lineup Data Reveals About Who Holds the Edge in the NBA Finals

By: Taylor Bechtold

After dropping six of their first nine games in Orlando – including Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, the Los Angeles Lakers found themselves at a crossroads in the bubble.

The team with the Western Conference’s best record suddenly faced questions about their cohesiveness and whether Anthony Davis or LeBron James should be the team’s go-to scorer. On the NBA on TNT, Charles Barkley even insisted that the Lakers were so lost they wouldn’t beat the eighth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.

Instead, the cream has risen to the top in the West. Los Angeles will take on the Miami Heat in Wednesday’s night Game 1 of the NBA Finals after winning 12 of 14. The Lakers powered past the Denver Nuggets in five games to reach the Finals for the first time since Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol led them to a second straight title in 2010.

This will be their first Finals meeting with the Heat, who are vying for their first championship since James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh led them to the second of back-to-back titles in 2013. There weren’t many who expected the fifth-seeded Heat to be here, including oddsmakers who gave them 60-to-1 preseason odds to win the title. Newcomer Jimmy Butler certainly didn’t care. He responded to Miami being tabbed a longshot by telling ESPN: “I don’t give a damn what anybody says. I think I can speak for my teammates when I say they don’t give a damn either.”

The five-time All-Star also said back in mid-August: “We can win this.” Butler, who signed a four-year, $141 million deal with the Heat in the offseason, is averaging 20.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists this postseason. But it might come as a surprise that he’s not the team’s leading scorer.

Goran Dragic, 34, has turned back the clock to play a leading role in Miami’s postseason run. Since replacing Kendrick Nunn in the starting lineup on Aug. 18, the veteran guard has averaged 20.9 points, 4.7 assists and 4.2 boards while the Heat have won 12 of 15 – including surprising series wins over the NBA-best Milwaukee Bucks and the third-seeded Boston Celtics.

Four of Miami’s five most-used lineups this postseason have a positive net rating. The only one that doesn’t? Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and no Dragic with a minus-8.0 rating over 239 playoff possessions.


PGSGSFPFCPoss.Off. RatingDef. RatingNet

Of course, the Heat’s most effective lineups have had either Iguodala or Crowder alongside Dragic, Herro, Butler and Adebayo, who had 21.8 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game in the Boston series. With Iguodala, that lineup has a 137.3 offensive rating and a plus-23.2 net. That group with Crowder has played better defensively with a 108.6 rating (down from 114.1 with Iguodala) and a plus-12.1 net.

After struggling for much of the playoffs, Duncan Robinson totaled 35 points while sinking 8 of 18 from beyond the arc in the last two games against the Celtics. Still, Miami might want to give Herro a bigger chunk of the playing time at that spot. Herro averaged 23.0 points while hitting 12-of-30 (40.0%) from 3-point range in the last four games of the Eastern Conference finals, and the Heat have been less effective at both ends with Robinson on the floor. Even the starting lineup of Dragic, Robinson, Crowder, Butler and Adebayo has produced only a plus-1.5 net rating over 733 playoff possessions.

Anthony Davis has averaged 28.9 points during the Lakers’ 12-2 playoff run.

How will the Lakers counter a Miami team that has the fourth-highest offensive rating (111.7) of the playoffs? Because four of the Heat’s most-used lineups feature Butler at power forward, Los Angeles could lean heavily on Anthony Davis in the middle as it did against the smaller Houston Rockets. The Lakers held the Rockets to just 103.8 points per game over the five-game series, well below the 117.8 points Houston had averaged during the regular season.

This will be the fourth straight high-scoring point guard the Lakers have faced this postseason. Damian Lillard averaged 28.7 points – slightly under his 30.0 season average – on 41.8% shooting in three games before getting injured in Game 4 of that first-round series, and Russell Westbrook managed 19.8 points per game – well under his 27.2 season average – on 42.4% shooting in the semifinals. Jamal Murray averaged 25.0 points in the West finals, but the Lakers held him to 9-of-29 (31%) shooting from 3-point range after he had hit 49.1% from 3 over his previous 14 playoff contests.

Reserve guard Alex Caruso continues to play a key role defensively and he’s likely to spend some time on Dragic. But as we saw in the West finals, James will likely take on the challenge of defending whoever heats up for Miami down the stretch. Though Dwight Howard started the last two games against the Nuggets, the Lakers’ lineup of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, James, Davis and JaVale McGee have better defensive (107.3) and net (plus-18.3) ratings. Overall, Los Angeles has the fourth-best defensive rating (105.3) among playoff teams.


PGSGSFPFCPoss.Off. RatingDef. RatingNet

The Lakers have turned things around in part by relying more on James and Davis and less on Kyle Kuzma. James averaged 22.0 points, Davis scored 21.6 and Kuzma put up 15.4 points per game over their rough start in the bubble. But during the team’s 12-2 turnaround, Davis has averaged 28.9, James has scored 27.0 and Kuzma has posted 10.5 per game. After putting up 80 field-goal attempts in seven games before this run, Kuzma has shot it just 117 times over the past 14 contests.

At the same time, Davis has more than doubled his field-goal attempts from 102 to 237. In the four lineups used most with James and Davis, Los Angeles has posted 125.6, 123.2, 130.0 and 136.1 offensive ratings and overall the Lakers own the second-best offensive rating of the playoffs.

Davis totaled 59 points and James had 53 to help the Lakers take both meetings with Miami this season, though the last took place in December.

JULY 30 – AUGUST 18 (LAKERS 3-6)




The Heat, who are sixth among playoff teams with a 107.0 defensive rating, can use some combination of Butler, Crowder, and Iguodala on James, and Adebayo as the primary defender on Davis. Their top defensive lineup (108.6) this postseason has been Dragic, Herro, Butler, Adebayo and Crowder among those with at least 200 possessions.

The Lakers own the advantage at both ends of the court and continue to have the best net rating (plus-7.9) of the playoffs. It all points to Los Angeles winning the 18th championship in franchise history and LeBron further cementing his legacy with his fourth title. The Lakers win in six games.


Data modeling and analysis provided by Matt Scott.

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