Here we go.
Tonight, the 2020 NBA Finals will tip off when the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat face off in Game 1. It's probably not the two teams many expected to see competing for the title when the season resumed back in July, but it should be a highly competitive series, one that could go in either direction.
What are the keys to the Heat winning and what are the keys to the Lakers winning?
Here are four stats that loom large over the Finals.
49.6: How many points per game the Lakers are averaging in the paint in the playoffs
During the regular season, the Lakers averaged 52.8 points per game in the paint, putting them behind only the Memphis Grizzlies (55.9) for most in the league.
That number has dropped slightly in the playoffs (49.6), but it's the highest mark in the league.
The team closest to the Lakers in that regard is the LA Clippers, who averaged 45.7 points per game in the paint before they were knocked out in the second round. After them, no other team has averaged over 45.0 points per game in the paint in the playoffs.
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It shouldn't come as a surprise seeing as the Lakers are led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who are two of the most dominant paint scorers in the league. In these playoffs, only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic are ahead of James in paint points per game. As for Davis, he ranks seventh behind those three, plus Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Kawhi Leonard.
Together, James and Davis make up for more than half of the Lakers' scoring in the paint.
You best believe the Heat are game planning to keep both James and Davis out of the paint. The question is at what cost.
It's one thing shutting down the paint against Antetokounmpo. It's another against James, who is one of the best - if not the best - passers the NBA has ever seen. If the Heat send multiple defenders at him, he will consistently find the open man. (Whether or not the Lakers' supporting cast can make enough shots to capitalize on those opportunities is another story).
Davis isn't anywhere near the passer that James is, but the Heat only have one player in Bam Adebayo who has a shot of matching up with him physically. Putting him on Davis makes a lot of sense, but what does that mean when the Lakers have one of Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee on the court with Davis? If Adebayo is on Davis, that leaves one of Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler or Andre Iguodala to match up with Howard or McGree, which would make them vulnerable to offensive rebounds.
The other option is having one of Crowder, Butler or Iguodala guard Davis while Adebayo marks Howard or McGee, but that would give Davis a huge size advantage. Davis isn't the most efficient post scorer in the league - he ranked in the 45th percentile with an average of 0.90 points per post-up possession in the regular season - but he's more than capable of bullying non-power forwards and centres on the block.
The safest bet is Miami will play a decent amount of zone, both as a means to keep the Lakers out of the paint and to encourage them to settle for 3s. The Lakers haven't seen much zone in these playoffs, but they could get a heavy dose of it in the Finals.
Something else playing zone will help with? Preventing James from mismatch hunting. There isn't a single player in the NBA who is as good as James at sniffing out the opposing team's weakest defender and attacking them relentlessly. That becomes much more difficult to do against a zone.
39: How many clutch points Jimmy Butler has scored in the playoffs
It's tied with Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray for most in the league, but that's only part of why it's interesting.
One of the weird things about the Heat this season was that they weren't very good in the clutch. Actually, they were terrible in those situations. According to NBA.com, they were outscored by a rate of 14.0 points per 100 possessions in the last five minutes of five-point games, ranking them 24th among the league's 30 teams.
Butler was a big reason for that number being as low as it was. His shooting splits in the clutch? .279/.150/.736, making him one of the least efficient clutch scorers in the league.
Fortunately for the Heat, the playoffs have been a different story.
Jimmy Butler getting clutch buckets is the #ULTRAMoment of the week! #HeatMoment @MichelobULTRA pic.twitter.com/9RpZxLbyxp- NBA (@NBA) September 6, 2020
Not only is Butler tied with Murray for the most clutch points, he's an efficient 10-for-17 (58.8 percent) from the field, 2-for-5 (40.0 percent) from 3-point range and 17-for-19 (89.5 percent) from the free throw line. It's set the tone for a Heat team that is outscoring their opponents by a rate of 42.5 points per 100 possessions, the second-best rate in the league. (And really, it's the best rate in the league because the only team ahead of them is the Portland Trail Blazers, who played a grand total of ... five clutch minutes).
Small sample size? Sure. But it's enough of a sample size to know that Butler has been a different player with the game on the line in the playoffs.
It's helped the Heat get to this point, and it could help them win the whole thing.
25.5: Jae Crowder's 3-point shooting percentage in the Eastern Conference Finals
After shooting 40.0 percent from 3-point range against the Indiana Pacers in the first round and the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round, Crowder came crashing back down to earth against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That's a worrying sign for the Heat.
Crowder is a capable 3-point shooter, but he's streaky. In 2016-17, he shot a career-best 39.8 percent from the perimeter, establishing himself as one of the best 3-and-D wings in the league. In the four years since, he's combined to shoot 33.3 percent from 3-point range.
Crowder shooting 25.5 percent against the Celtics could very well be him regressing to the mean.
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The reason that matters in this series: Miami needs Crowder to keep his defender honest. He'll probably be guarded by Davis or one of Howard and McGee. In which case, them not having to respect Crowder from the perimeter would pave the way for them to operate more as free safeties, allowing them to roam more and muck things up for Dragic, Butler and Adebayo, whether it's by providing more pressure on the perimeter or hanging back to lock down the paint.
Davis, of course, would be the scarier roamer of the three. He is a monster of a help defender, someone who is capable of protecting the rim and shutting down passing lanes with his length. Him not having to guard Crowder closely would spell bad news for the Heat.
23.5: How many fouls the Lakers are commiting per game in the playoffs
OK, I'm well aware that this isn't the sexiest of stats, but it's an important one.
During the regular season, the Lakers ranked around the league average in fouls per game. In the playoffs, there's only one team - again, the Trail Blazers - that has been more foul-prone than them.
Despite playing only 17.6 minutes per game, Dwight Howard leads the way for the Lakers with 3.5 fouls per game. (That works out to be 7.2 fouls per 36 minutes, by the way, which is ... a lot). Following Howard: Alex Caruso (2.9), Markieff Morris (2.6), Davis (2.5), Rajon Rondo (2.5), Danny Green (2.5) and Kyle Kuzma (2.4).
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That's music to the ears of a Heat team that lives at the foul line. Through three rounds, Miami is averaging 27.6 free throw attempts per game in the playoffs, the second-best rate in the league. They were in similar territory during the regular season.
It's the Heat's three-best players who do the bulk of the damage in that regard, led once again by Butler. Butler has developed into one of the best foul-drawers in the league over the last few seasons, peaking this season with a James Harden-esque 9.1 free throw attempts per game. He's getting to the line at an almost identical rate (9.2) in these playoffs.
Butler has all the tricks in the book, knowing how to punish defenders for making even the smallest of mistakes, which could become a problem for the Lakers if some of their key players can't rein it in a little.
The Lakers, of course, get to the free throw line a ton themselves. The difference is the Heat are averaging 19.9 fouls per game in the playoffs, the third-lowest rate in the league.
If the Heat can win the free throw battle, beit by keeping the Lakers off the line or baiting the likes of Howard, Caruso and Morris into committing silly fouls, it could tip the scales in their favour.
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