It all comes down to this. After nearly a 12 month lead up, we have finally arrived at the 2021 NBA Finals. Better late than never.
The Los Angeles Lakers were expected to be here. They signed LeBron James in free agency two years ago and followed that up by acquiring Anthony Davis last offseason. That one-two punch gives the Lakers a superstar combination that very few teams in league history can match.
The Miami Heat are a more surprising participant. They entered the playoffs as just the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, and they were underdogs in each of the past two rounds. That didn’t stop them from cruising past the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics, and they’ll look to become just the third team seeded No. 4 or lower to win an NBA title.
The Lakers appear to have a significant edge in this series, but can the Heat pull off another upset? Let’s break this series down to try and identify some potential betting value.
Los Angeles Lakers (-5) vs. Miami Heat — 217.5 total
Series Odds: Lakers -400/Heat +300
This series has a lot of interesting subplots. LeBron James vs. his former team. Pat Riley vs. his former team. Jimmy Butler vs. everybody.
That’s fun and all, but don’t let it distract you from the fact that this should be a good series. The Heat may not have been expected to be here, but their credentials are legit.
They are built around an excellent offense. They ranked seventh in offensive efficiency during the regular season, averaging 111.9 points per 100 possessions. They have actually increased that mark to 113.4 points per 100 possessions during the postseason despite facing some excellent defensive teams in the Celtics and Bucks.
The biggest reason for their offensive prowess is their ability to shoot the ball from deep. They jacked up the seven-highest frequency of 3-point attempts during the regular season, but that didn’t stop them from ranking second in 3-point shooting accuracy.
That said, they did cool down quite a bit from long distance in their last series. They shot just 32.7% from 3-point range vs. the Celtics after posting marks of 39.5% vs. the Pacers and 37.9% vs. the Bucks. With that in mind, the fact that they were still able to beat the Celtics in six games is very impressive.
The Lakers are solid defensively — they rank fifth in defensive efficiency during the postseason — but they have been somewhat vulnerable against the 3-pointer. They’ve allowed their opponents to shoot 36.7% from behind the arc during the postseason, which doesn’t grade out as highly as teams like the Bucks and Celtics.
However, the Lakers do excel at limiting the number of 3s that their opponents actually attempt. They’ve allowed the third-lowest frequency of 3-point attempts during the postseason, and they’ve allowed an average of just 26.7 “open” or “wide-open” 3-point attempts per game (per NBA.com). That’s one of the top marks during the playoffs.
If the Heat struggle to find good 3-point attempts in this series, where can they make up for it? They shot the ball very well in other areas vs. the Celtics — they posted an FG% of 68.2% at the rim and 45.7% from the midrange — and both of those marks represented increases compared to their shooting numbers from the regular season. The Lakers were better at protecting the rim than the Celtics this season, so the Heat will likely need to find success in the midrange once again if they want to pull off the upset.
On the other side, the Lakers’ offense typically starts as soon as they grab a defensive rebound or turnover. They have generated roughly 18.5% of their shots during the playoffs in transition, which is one of the top marks in the league.
As you might expect for a team that employs LeBron, they are lethal in that situation. They’ve averaged 1.16 points per possession in transition during the playoffs, which is a big reason why they rank second in offensive efficiency. The Heat have not been effective at stopping their opponents in transition to start the playoffs — they’ve allowed 1.17 points per possession in those situations — so they need to make limiting the Lakers’ transition opportunities a major priority.
The Lakers are much more pedestrian on offense when you force them into halfcourt situations. They love to feed the ball to Davis in the post, but the Lakers have averaged just 0.95 points per possession in post up situations.
One big X-factor when the Lakers have the ball offensively is how often the Heat will resort to zone defense. They went to that quite a bit vs. the Celtics and were pretty successful. The zone allows them to hide guys like Duncan Robinson, Goran Dragic, and Tyler Herro defensively since they can’t be targeted in pick-and-roll situations.
That said, the zone caught the Celtics off guard, but I would expect the Lakers to be prepared for it. They don’t have a ton of elite shooting options to space the perimeter — which is typically the easiest way to beat a zone — but having LeBron should trump that weakness. He is a prodigious passer, so expect him to find cutters and get guys like Danny Green wide-open looks vs. a zone defense.
Prior experience is another factor we have to consider here. The Heat have had ice-water in their veins for most of the postseason, but this is still a young team with no NBA Finals experience. Technically Andre Iguodala is a former Finals MVP, but he’s not the same player that he was in his prime and hasn’t played a ton of minutes in the 2020 postseason.
Compare that to the Lakers, who have oodles of experience playing in the Finals. LeBron has basically lived in the Finals in the past decade. Rajon Rondo played in the Finals with the Celtics. Danny Green has been here with the Spurs and the Raptors. Anthony Davis will be making his first trip to the final round of the playoffs, but he won’t have to shoulder the load by himself.
The Heat have had a magical journey through the playoffs so far, but I think their run ends here. The combination of LeBron and Davis is simply too good to overcome. Those two guys have averaged a combined 55.5 points, 19.6 rebounds, 12.5 assists, 2.5 steals, and 2.2 blocks per game during the playoffs. The Heat struggled to contain Tatum for most of that series, so asking them to deal with LeBron and AD is simply too much to ask.
The sportsbooks currently have a 4-1 series win for the Lakers as the most likely outcome — you can grab that at around +300 — and I agree with that assessment. Still, I’m going to try to play it safe by grabbing the Lakers -1.5 games at -186. That means as long as the Lakers win in either four, five, or six games, I win my wager.
As for Game 1, I think you can make a strong case for the under. Game 1’s are typically low-scoring affairs during the Finals. Both teams are feeling each other out, and both teams are likely dealing with some nerves as well. As a result, the under has posted a record of 9-5-1 against the spread over the past 15 seasons.
You can definitely grab that wager straight up, but I actually like the idea of pairing it with the Lakers’ moneyline. You can grab that game parlay at approximately +185, and I think that’s a pretty appealing option. If you ultimately like the Lakers to win this series — which I obviously do — they should hopefully be able to grab Game 1.
Finally, let’s talk about some MVP odds. You’re only going to want to consider players you think will play for the winning team, since only one Finals MVP in league history has come from the losing squad. That was Jerry West all the way back in 1969.
For the Lakers, that means we’re considering LeBron James and Anthony Davis. There is absolutely zero chance that anyone else on the Lakers wins the Finals MVP in this series. I don’t care if Rondo averages a triple double and rescues a cat from a tree — it’s just not happening.
Davis is definitely the more appealing play at his current odds. He’s listed at +250 on DraftKings sportsbook compared to just -155 for LeBron, but I say why not bet both? You can size it up so that you lock in a profit if either player wins the award. If you risk 1.55 units on LeBron and 0.75 units on Davis, you would lock in a profit of around +0.25 units if either player wins. If you’re willing to absorb some additional risk, you can multiply your wager on both sides to potentially increase your payout. That does open the door for you to get cleaned out if the Heat win this series, so make sure you feel confident in the Lakers before attempting that strategy.
Are you going to get rich by betting both players? Of course not. That said, I don’t think there’s any shame in trying to lock in a small win if you believe the Lakers are going to win the series.
The Picks: Lakers ML & Under 217.5 Game 1 parlay (+185), Lakers -1.5 games (-186), LeBron James to win MVP (-155), Anthony Davis to win MVP (+250)