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These six moves will decide the next NBA champion

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  • Kirk GoldsberryESPN Staff Writer

The 2020 NBA Finals feature one of the league’s most iconic players matching up against the franchise that helped carve his amazing legacy. But these Finals aren’t just about LeBron James versus Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra. They’re about two red-hot basketball teams facing off for a historic championship in an unprecedented setting in Orlando, Florida.

In a make-or-miss league, the Lakers and Heat are still fighting because their stars make a ton of big shots. Let’s highlight the shot types that will swing the NBA Finals.

Game 1 info: Wednesday | 9 p.m. ET | ABC and the ESPN App


LeBron James’ paint production

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LeBron James leaves Torrey Craig in the dust as he spins baseline and elevates to throw down an authoritative dunk.

Any conversation about the most important scorers in this matchup has to start with the man making his 10th Finals appearance. Since 2006, when James first made the postseason, he has accumulated 3,372 points in the paint. No other player has half as many over that span.

Most postseason points in the paint (since 2006)

  1. LeBron James | 3,372

  2. Tim Duncan | 1,622

  3. Dwyane Wade | 1,492

  4. Tony Parker | 1,446

  5. Dwight Howard | 1,296

Anybody who watched the Lakers close out the Denver Nuggets knows that the King is still a force in the paint. He scored 20 points inside in Game 5, and he leads all scorers in that category again this postseason.

The combination of James’ physique and feel makes him one of the most punishing rim attackers in league history. Few defenders in the world can match his blend of speed, strength and savvy. As a result, James’ downhill trips usually end with either a bucket or a shooting foul. A massive 69.5% of his career playoff points have come in the paint or at the line. This season, he’s been a force in the paint and relatively average outside of it.

If the Heat have any chance of slowing down this Lakers team, their defense must find ways to turn James into a jump-shooter. If James can score at will near the rim, the Lakers will win this series.


Anthony Davis‘ jumpers

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Alex Caruso quickly finds a trailing Anthony Davis at the top of the key for a knockdown 3-pointer to extend the Lakers’ lead to 102-92.

Davis might have hit the biggest jump shot of his career in the Western Conference finals, but that doesn’t change the fact that the reliability of his jumper remains the biggest question in his bag.

Although Davis’ 52.5% effective field goal percentage on jumpers in the postseason has been markedly better than his 42.8% regular-season clip, a regression is plausible here — especially as the Lakers face the toughest defense they have encountered during this playoff run. Can Davis keep it up or will his jump shooting become a problem again?

The James-Davis pairing has been a wild success, but their mutual limitations as jump-shooters provides Miami with a clear defensive strategy: Build a wall inside and use your best defenders to make these two stars beat you with jumpers.


Shots off Rajon Rondo‘s dimes

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Rajon Rondo connects with Anthony Davis on two stellar assists as JR Smith celebrates on the Lakers’ bench.

When Rondo returned to action after missing the first five games of the postseason, the Lakers immediately got deeper, crisper and better, especially on offense.

The Lakers have a sky-high offensive rating of 118.3 points per 100 possessions with Rondo on the floor and 112.4 with him off. One reason why: Rondo’s passing has a way of elevating his teammates’ shooting numbers. Of the 102 assist opportunities coming from Rondo’s passes, the Lakers’ eFG is a ridiculous 71.6%, by far the highest such figure among the 16 players who have created at least 100 such chances this postseason, per Second Spectrum tracking.

Over the past 10 games, Rondo’s dimes have provided off-ball teammates with clean looks in good spots, creating 17.5 points per game. It also reduces the playmaking load on James, and that’s a good thing. The Lakers will need as much extra shot creation as they can get in this one.


Lakers wild cards

  • Danny Green‘s catch-and-shoot 3s: Green’s streaky shooting can still be a huge factor. Just ask James and Spoelstra, who watched with horror as Green went 27-for-49 (55.1%) from downtown for the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 Finals. If Ray Allen had missed that corner 3 in Game 6, Green might have won the Finals MVP. Does he have an encore left in him?

  • Kyle Kuzma‘s anything: Miami is one of the most balanced scoring teams in recent memory. Los Angeles is not. Kuzma has been the third-leading scorer in these playoffs, but he never dropped more than 11 points against Denver. If he fails to get going against Miami, it just puts a bigger burden on James and Davis.


Bam Adebayo‘s interior buckets

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Bam Adebayo goes down the lane and emphatically slams home a dunk on Daniel Theis.

Adebayo has quickly emerged as one of the most complete young superstars in the NBA. The 23-year-old center led the Heat outright in points, rebounds, assists and steals in the conference finals. The past three players to do that are James (2007, 2011, 2014), Jason Kidd (2003) and Larry Bird (1984) … is that good?

Adebayo’s full arsenal was on display as he helped Miami rip Game 6 away from Boston during a brutal 26-6 run in the fourth quarter. From monstrous dunks to huge jumpers to big rebounds and beautiful dimes, Adebayo proved he was the best player in the series when it mattered most.

Adebayo affects games in every single facet, but he became Miami’s leading scorer in the previous round with a simple scoring formula: rim attacks, lobs, short-range jumpers and free throws. Of his 21.8 points per game in the conference finals, 20.5 of them came either in the paint or at the free throw line.

But while the Celtics were thin up front, the Lakers have a fleet of giant, physical interior defenders ready to combat Adebayo. Whether it’s JaVale McGee, Howard or Davis, Adebayo will have to prove he can produce paint points in the face of bigger, more athletic defenders for Miami to win it all


Duncan Robinson‘s triples

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Duncan Robinson gets the pass and pulls up to knock down a quick 3-pointer in the face of Jayson Tatum.

For those unfamiliar with Duncan Robinson, here’s a brief scouting report: He is the most dangerous catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter in the NBA right now. Period.

He combines volume and efficiency in ways we’ve never seen. Including the playoffs, Robinson has now made over 44% of 710 3-point tries this season. That is absurd by itself, but it gets wilder in context.

I’m not quick to compare shooters to Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, but when you look at what Robinson did this season, it’s clear he belongs. Look at this, per Second Spectrum tracking:

Best catch-and-shoot 3P% (min. 500 attempts, regular season/playoffs)

  1. Duncan Robinson, 2019-20, 45.6 %

  2. Klay Thompson, 2017-18, 44.4%

  3. Klay Thompson, 2014-15, 43.7%

  4. Stephen Curry, 2018-19, 43.7%

  5. Klay Thompson, 2015-16, 43.6%

Robinson’s splashy numbers from long range are a huge reason why Miami suddenly emerged as one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the league. It’s difficult to overstate how important his production from downtown is for his team.

Robinson isn’t a great off-the-dribble shooter, but he makes up for that by turning catches into triples as fast as almost anyone else. This dude is no statue, and thanks to his height and his versatile mechanics, Robinson can shoot in tight spaces, coming off curls or on dribble-handoff plays. He’s a pain to defend because he’s always on the move and a constant threat from every angle.

Whoever defends Robinson must constantly run, fight over screens and be ready to contest high-release 3s at a moment’s notice. Robinson has run 109 miles on offense this season, sixth most in the NBA, per Second Spectrum data. Checking him is a chore.


Jimmy Butler‘s free throws

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Jimmy Butler is fouled in the corner as time expires and knocks down the game-winning free throws to give the Heat a 2-0 series lead.

Butler is the veteran leader of this team, and Miami owes a lot of this Finals run to the exact kind of grit he has brought to South Beach. Still, he is not this team’s most important scorer. He ranked fourth in points per game in the conference finals and failed to make over half of his shot attempts in any contest.

More than almost any other player in the NBA, Butler compensates his relatively inefficient shooting numbers with a huge dose of free throws. Any team looking to contain the proprietor of Big Face Coffee must aim to keep him off the charity stripe.

Easier said than done. So far in the playoffs, Butler has made 91 field goals while sinking 117 free throws. Only Davis has made more freebies this postseason. If the Lakers can stay disciplined and minimize Butler’s trips to the line, they will also minimize his impact in this series.


Heat wild cards

  • Goran Dragic‘s driving buckets: Dragic is the leading scorer for Miami in these playoffs, and at age 34 he’s become one of the shrewdest point guards in the league. But he is no slow old guy. His ferocious straight-line drives to the rim often result in efficient shots for Miami. Dragic has the fourth-most drives in the league this postseason, and 30% of them have resulted in shots near the basket (looks that yield an impressive 1.19 points per chance). According to Second Spectrum data, 28 players have averaged at least five drives per game ending with an interior pass or kickout. Only one player has a higher points per chance than Dragic: fellow Slovenian Luka Doncic.

  • Tyler Herro‘s pull-ups from anywhere: Herro makes his Finals debut as a 20-year-old unafraid to shoot against anyone at any time. His incredible 37-point breakout performance versus Boston not only revealed that he can create his own jump shots everywhere on the floor, but also that his pull-ups can change the outcomes of huge games.

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