Two months and 20 other teams later, only two franchises remain in the NBA’s bubble in Orlando. The prize hanging in the balance? A Larry O’Brien trophy for the squad that comes out on top in the 2020 NBA Finals.
Last year, the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat both finished 10th in their respective conferences, and did not even qualify for the playoffs. This year, the two teams will represent the Western Conference and Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, with each looking to win a championship in the third straight decade.
The storylines write themselves in this series, with LeBron James looking to lead his Lakers to victory against the team that he promised to bring “not one, not two, not three, not four” but seven titles during his tenure in Miami.
At the same time, James and Anthony Davis will hope to honor Kobe Bryant in the best way possible: They’ll look to bring a title back to Los Angeles for the first time since Bryant’s Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics in 2010.
Meanwhile, the Heat will serve as the ultimate underdogs, with Jimmy Butler and a young supporting cast looking to take down the two-headed monster of James and Davis after a magical run in the Eastern Conference’s side of the bracket.
Butler surely looked like a star as the Heat swept the Indiana Pacers, took out the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, and clinched a spot in the NBA Finals with their win in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics.
But, it was the youth surrounding him, specifically the shining and surging Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, that turned the Heat into a true contender in the East.
The 23-year-old Adebayo looked like a superstar as he dominated the Celtics, tallying double-doubles in four of the series’ six games. He scored 32 points in the series-clinching Game 5, with 21, 27 and 20 in Games 2, 3 and 4, respectively.
Then, the 20-year-old Herro, the first player born in the 2000s to appear in the Conference Finals, didn’t look like an inexperienced rookie when he had the ball in his hand against the Celtics.
He dropped 37 points in a three-point win in Game 4, and shot 66% percent from the field in the process. He put up 22 points in the Heat’s Game 3 loss, and even his most mediocre games saw him reach double-digits in scoring.
Add that in with the veteran presence of Goran Dragic, who wasn’t a slouch in the Eastern Conference Finals either, and you have a serious threat to the Lakers’ championship aspirations in October.
Unfortunately for the Heat, it’s tough to plan for a team like the Lakers, who can beat any variety of team in a number of ways.
Shut down LeBron James? Have fun dealing with Anthony Davis instead.
Want to shift the focus to Davis defensively? James will take advantage of the opportunity, and take advantage with his perimeter play and his physicality.
As if that’s not enough to deal with, the team has a wide range of experience to work with throughout its roster. Some will focus on youngster Kyle Kuzma and his youthful energy, while others will focus on the size of a player like Dwight Howard.
But, the potential sleeper to consider when looking at this series represents a familiar face for those 2010 Lakers that were mentioned earlier: Rajon Rondo.
The former Celtics point guard brings all sorts of postseason experience to the series, and has been looking like the Rondo of old at times throughout his stint in the bubble. If he can keep up the pace and turn it on for the NBA Finals, it could lead to tough nights for players like Herro and Dragic.
All in all, this turned out to be one of the best NBA Finals matchups that fans could have asked for. An underdog Heat lineup with a star and the league’s future surrounding him. A star-studded Lakers lineup that could have completed a starting five in the All-Star Game a few years ago.
In the end, it’ll likely turn into a similar series for the Lakers as their Western Conference Finals tilt against the Denver Nuggets: the underdogs will scratch and claw their way to a few victories, but the King will earn his crown by the series’ end.
Prediction: Lakers win in six games
Game 1: Wednesday, September 30 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 2: Friday, October 2 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 3: Sunday, October 4 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 4: Tuesday, October 6 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 5 (if necessary): Friday, October 9 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 6 (if necessary): Sunday, October 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 7 (if necessary): Tuesday, October 13 at 9 p.m. ET