Moore’s NBA Finals Betting Codex: The Miami Heat Will Be the Lakers’ Toughest Test Yet
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images. Pictured: Bam Adebayo and Anthony Davis
- The Miami Heat are +300 underdogs in their NBA Finals series with the Los Angeles Lakers -- but don't tell them that.
- The Heat are scrappy and Matt Moore likes their matchup with the Lakers.
- See why he's betting the Heat to win their first championship since 2013.
The Los Angeles Lakers have won each of the previous three playoff series in five games in a dominant run to the NBA Finals.
That trend will end against the Miami Heat in these Finals. That’s how I’m betting it, anyway.
Let’s break it down.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
The Lakers finished with the best record in the Western Conference and rolled through the playoffs. The Blazers, this supposedly hot team that was “the best No. 8 seed ever,” got demolished because they couldn’t defend at all. The Rockets’ smallball attack fell completely apart vs. Anthony Davis.
The Nuggets series in the Western Conference Finals was five games, but legitimately close. Two games were nail-biter coin flips. If Denver catches a break or two, that series goes six, but probably not to seven. The Lakers have been dominant.
You know about LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But what you really need to know about this team is that their defense is their third star. First-year head coach Frank Vogel has instilled a team-wide commitment to discipline and physicality. They are a beast to deal with on the defensive end in a way Miami hasn’t seen yet.
That defense is what fuels their offense, sparking their transition game. The Lakers spend nearly 20% of their total possessions in transition, even in the postseason, second only to Toronto in these playoffs. They have long athletes and great outlet passers, with James capable of being both the shoulder that throws the spear and operating as the tip of it.
The halfcourt offense has been a weak point. They rank third in the playoffs overall in scoring, so you can make an argument it’s not a problem, but you have to look under the hood a bit. They were 15th in the regular season, then played an outmatched Blazers team and a Houston team that went all-in on small-ball and had no recourse when it flipped.
In Games 2 and 3 vs. Denver, they had a halfcourt offensive rating below 100 points per 100 possessions. If you’re going to beat the Lakers, that’s where it starts, but that means keeping them off the line. The Lakers have had the No. 1 differential in free throw rate in wins vs. losses.
I saw the Pacers series win coming; Indiana didn’t take a lot of threes and was without Domantas Sabonis. I saw the Bucks series coming, I wrote a lot about it all year, and especially before the series.
I didn’t see the Celtics series coming. I’m still not sure what happened if I’m being honest. Boston’s failure is something that it needs to reconcile and I’ll have to really analyze at a later date. Miami deserves all the credit in the world, it’s just shocking how that series finished.
Here’s the big reason why so many (but not everyone) missed on the Heat: this team is brand new. The Heat made their trade for Andre Iguodala, Jae Crower, and Solomon Hill on Feb. 5. The season was suspended on March 11. They had less than a month together.
When they returned to the bubble, everything was different. Everyone completely overlooked Crowder in the Memphis trade, and he wound up starting. Crowder shot 43% from 3 vs. the Bucks, making 4 triples per game (!!!), and then hit 5 of 9 from 3 in Game 1 vs. the Celtics, which turned the series on its head.
Iguodala has saved himself all year for this time and has come through.
And then there’s Dragic.
Dragic is playing his best basketball since 2013? Ish? He’s been incredible, looking finally healthy. Dragic wasn’t even part of my first run at analyzing this team when we left off in March. He started three games! Three! And he’s been a top-five most-impactful player in these playoffs.
All this, plus Tyler Herro being ready and able to step up and be a big-game player immediately. He has the same True Shooting Percentage as Jimmy Butler in the playoffs and basically won Game 4 of the Celtics series on his own with 30.
If you buy into the idea of 16-game players vs. 82-game players, then the Heat are primed for this.
The Heat are 9-2 in playoff games inside five points inside five minutes, with a mind-breaking +42.5 net rating in those minutes.
The Lakers won’t fall apart like Milwaukee and the Celtics did. But the Heat are ready for this.
The Heat have the advantage here. Dragic and Herro have been two of the 10 best guards in the playoffs. They won’t be bothered by the aggressiveness of the Lakers’ guards defensively and are comfortable creating offense on their own. They’re both willing to take pull-up jumpers if the Lakers play drop, or attack the bigs on the perimeter if they switch.
Caruso has been excellent for the Lakers, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been very good. KCP is shooting 42% from 3-point range and feasts when LeBron forces help:
Caruso’s not a reliable shooter, KCP struggles to put the ball on the floor. Rondo is either good or terrible in every stint.
The Lakers’ guards actually create more 3’s per game and per 100 possessions than the Heat, but that’s because so much of Miami’s perimeter offense comes from its forwards.
I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with LeBron James. It doesn’t feel like I need to go on and on about him.
Butler vs. James is clearly the big marquee matchup. For what it’s worth, James shot 6 of 10 from the field when defended by Butler, with 9 assists to 4 turnovers, according to NBA.com’s admittedly wonky matchup data.
Butler shot 1-of-3 with James defending him only seven minutes.
Markieff Morris has been very hit or miss for the Lakers, and isn’t always in the rotation.
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Miami at least physically has the kind of wings you would want vs. James, even if nothing really stops him. You’re just trying to slow him down and throw waves at him. Butler, Jae Crowder, and Iguodala are available, with Solomon Hill as an emergency option if needed due to injury or foul trouble.
The Heat have a little more lineup flexibility due to those three, along with Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn floating around. The Lakers obviously will play James for 40 or more, and their smaller lineups with James at 4 usually involve two guards and KCP at the 3.
This is where things get weird. The Heat have been starting smallball lineups with Crowder at the 4, and the Lakers play a lot of lineups with LeBron at 4 and Anthony Davis a the 5.
Do the Lakers go small? Do they go big to force the Heat to do the same? Do the Heat stay small? Do they start Kelly Ollynyk next to Adebayo?
Adebayo has cemented himself as an absolute star in these playoffs. But Anthony Davis has been the second-best big man in the playoffs behind Nikola Jokic, who he just outdueled.
Davis was just 6-of-14 from the field vs. Adebayo, according to the NBA’s matchup data.
Dwight Howard’s physicality and bullying antics were huge vs. the Nuggets and Jokic.
However … don’t sleep on the Heat’s reserve bigs. Kelly Olynyk is good in defensive coverage, has experience, and can spread the floor with shooting. If need be, Meyers Leonard can buy a few minutes.
Olynyk will be challenged by James, and the Heat may have to play zone when he’s on the floor to prevent James from targeting him. However, he also brings quite a bit to the table offensively:
Leonard actually started 49 games this season. However, the Lakers tore him up in the regular-season matchup back in December.
Derrick Jones Jr. found a lot of minutes in the regular-season matchup, but he struggled vs. both Davis and James. That’s not a knock — it’s LeBron and AD — but it’s still something to keep in mind for the matchups.
LAKERS OFFENSE VS. HEAT DEFENSE
Ah, the zone. The Lakers used small stretches of zone vs. the Nuggets to throw a different look out. The Heat, on the other hand, have used zone 12.8% of the time, compared to 2.3% of the time for L.A. Whether the Lakers will struggle with it is of some debate:
Miami will focus on making the Lakers shoot jump shots, which they aren’t great at, and have better perimeter containment and better size and vertical athletes than Denver to protect the rim.
The Lakers have LeBron and AD. As it was in the Nuggets series, much will come down to whether Anthony Davis continues his hot shooting on jumpshots. When he’s hitting those, the Lakers are unstoppable. When he’s not, they’re pedestrian.
And if you were building a defender for Davis, it’s Adebayo.
If you were making a list of potential LeBron stoppers, Butler appears somewhere in the top 10, Iguodala somewhere in the top 20 and Crowder somewhere in the top 30.
However, and this is a big, however… the Lakers are a phenomenal transition team. They blitz you with defense and then run the ball out for dunks. The Heat were 15th in transition defense this season, and in the playoffs, they are 15th in points allowed in transition and per possession via Synergy Sports.
If the Lakers just run the ball down the Heat’s throat, they’ll win the series.
HEAT OFFENSE VS. LAKERS DEFENSE
The Heat have faced two really great defenses already in Boston and Milwaukee, but the Bucks played drop defense too often and the Celtics lacked rim protection with a weak frontcourt.
The Heat need to outpace the Lakers with 3-pointers; no team has been able to win that battle yet. Duncan Robinson needs to have a big series, Tyler Herro needs to have a big series, and it would be great for Miami if Jae Crowder could go back to shooting the lights out. If the Lakers can bring help, they’ll shut down Miami.
The best way to look at this matchup is that the Heat want to contain you on the perimeter because they don’t have elite rim protection (11th in at-rim field goal percentage among playoff teams), and the Lakers want to overplay to the perimeter to contain threes and trust their rim protection.
While unders have been the play for the playoffs, in the Conference Finals, overs went 9-2. Miami has hit the over on their team total in 12 of their 15 playoff games. The “the Lakers are not the Celtics/Bucks” narrative is definitely in play just as it was with the Nuggets and the Clippers/Jazz, but Miami has faced good defenses already.
I’m taking the Heat over 106.5 in Game 1 right off the bat and seeing where it goes from there.
LeBron James is the easy pick here at -125. For all his comments about the MVP being decided by narrative (which was in his favor, by the way), the Finals MVP is even more so decided by it.
Let me put it this way: Anthony Davis could average 30 in this series and I’d still like James in this spot. If Davis is going to win it, you’re going to know early in the series and can buy back on him.
Bam Adebayo (12-1 at William Hill) is my best value pick for Finals MVP. It would take an incredible series from him, given his matchup vs. Davis. But if the Heat win, one of their players will win MVP.
Jimmy Butler tends to pick his spots, he’s not a “wreck you for 35-12-7” guy. Adebayo, on the other hand, may play good enough defense and rack up enough points and rebounds to put up the numbers needed for it.
I’ve also got my eye on Tyler Herro at 35-1 (DraftKings).
I’m taking Miami +300.
I don’t feel great about it. I wrote extensively on how the smart thing to do over the past 20 years is just bet the Lakers whenever they have a serious chance to win the title.
However, the implied odds here are Miami at 25% to win the series, and I don’t believe that’s representative based on the matchups.
The Heat have the best shooting set the Lakers have run into, the best defense they’ve run into, they score as many second-chance points per 100 possessions as LA, they have absolutely zero fear, and have more weapons.
The Lakers have the two best players in the series in Davis and James. If you’re going to go Lakers, instead of laying the -360, I’d go with Lakers in 5 at +300, or use FanDuel’s boost for +150 for Lakers in 4 or 5.
I think the Heat have a better than 35% chance to win this series, so the value is on Miami.