On Sept. 27, 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers reported to the team’s facility for media day. A year later, on Sept. 27, 2020, they found out who their opponent would be for the 2020 NBA Finals. It may have come a few months later than expected, but the Finals matchup is finally set.
The Lakers, owners of the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed and seeking out an NBA-best 17th championship, will face the Miami Heat, a No. 5 seed on a Cinderella run to the Finals after several years out of contention. Hollywood couldn’t script it any better. The Lakers may be entering the series as heavy favorites, but the Heat have been slaying giants since the playoffs began. They won’t back down against anyone. Here’s everything you need to know about the 2020 NBA Finals.
NBA Finals schedule
All times Eastern
Game 1: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 9 p.m. | ABC
Game 2: Friday, Oct. 2, 9 p.m. | ABC
Game 3: Sunday, Oct. 4, 7:30 p.m. | ABC
Game 4: Tuesday, Oct. 6, 9 p.m. | ABC
Game 5: Friday, Oct. 9, 9 p.m. | ABC*
Game 6: Sunday, Oct. 11, 7:30 p.m. | ABC*
Game 7: Tuesday, Oct. 13, 9:00 p.m. | ABC*
1. LeBron is making history, and there’s plenty of bad blood to go around
This series will be a unique challenge for LeBron James. He started winning championships as a member of the Miami Heat nearly a decade ago, but now, he will have to face his former team. Role players face former employers in the Finals fairly often, and Dion Waiters will do just that in this series as well, but superstars never find themselves in this position. Literally. No Finals MVP has ever gone on to face the team that he won the award with in a future Finals series.
He isn’t the only one turning back the clock. Heat president Pat Riley began his coaching career with the Lakers, but since he left the team in 1990, he has not once faced them in a playoff series as either a coach or an executive. That changes on Wednesday. This could be Riley’s last true shot at a 10th championship ring, and it comes against the team that helped him earn his first six. Someone is walking away from this series with a ring at the expense of their former home.
And that likely doesn’t bother either James or Riley. The two haven’t exactly seen eye-to-eye since LeBron’s final days with the Heat. Riley infamously challenged James to remain with the Heat after losing the 2014 Finals. “This stuff is hard,” he said at the time. “And you got to stay together, if you’ve got the guts. And you don’t find the first door and run out of it.” When Riley met with James in Las Vegas to discuss his future, he was upset by the absence of longtime LeBron confidante Maverick Carter, as well as a World Cup game playing in the background, feeling that James had already made up his mind about returning to Cleveland.
While James never identified Riley specifically, he spoke publicly about his burnt bridges in Miami after leaving the Heat and how it motivated him towards the 2016 championship. “When I decided to leave Miami,” James said at the time, “I’m not going to name any names, I can’t do that. But there were some people that I trusted and built relationships with in those four years [who] told me I was making the biggest mistake of my career.” It is widely believed that he was referring to Riley.
This matchup will be personal. It will also serve, potentially, as a capper on one of the greatest playing careers of all-time, or one of the greatest executive ones. Someone is going to leave this series with one of the most satisfying championships of his career.
2. The Lakers owned the season series, but under very different circumstances
The Lakers and Heat played twice this season, as all Finals opponents do, and the Lakers won both matchups. Round 1 was a 95-80 shellacking in Los Angeles in which the Lakers held the Heat to only 34 second-half points. Things got closer when the venue shifted to Miami for the second round, but again, the Lakers came out on top, 113-110.
Neither outcome should be viewed as particularly predictive in light of what came next, though. The Lakers and Heat haven’t played since December. In February, the Heat completed their rotation with the acquisitions of Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder at the trade deadline. Aside from playing major roles in Miami’s run through the Eastern Conference, both will prove essential in defending James. Iguodala has quite a bit of experience on that front. He won a Finals MVP award largely based on his work defending LeBron in 2015. Crowder has played both with and against James in the past.
Miami’s transformation goes well beyond the players it has added since the deadline, though. The Heat are a demonstrably different team on the court and should be treated as such. The Lakers and Heat will study the tape and take what they can from nine-month-old games, but the truth of the matter is that these teams, as presently constructed, have not played one another yet.
3. The Heat are already in uncharted waters, and so is the series as a whole
It should surprise none of you to hear that no No. 5 seed has ever won an NBA championship. Doing so, in most cases, would require upsets in four consecutive rounds. The Heat were favored against Indiana but overcame underdog status in their past two series to reach the Finals. In the process, they became the first No. 5 seed ever to get that far, though the No. 6 seeded Houston Rockets of 1995 won the championship.
That isn’t the only history to be made through this matchup. Both the Lakers and the Heat missed the playoffs last season. No Finals matchup has ever included two lottery teams from the previous season. The winner will become the first lottery team to win a championship the following season since the 2008 Boston Celtics.
Now, nobody expected the Lakers to be down for very long. Their lottery status was due, in large part, to LeBron’s mid-season injury. Miami’s situation was more precarious, but once Jimmy Butler came aboard, the playoffs were inevitabile. But both teams were coming off of droughts when they acquired their stars. Both James and Butler bet on teams that weren’t surefire contenders, and both have been rewarded with an appearance in the NBA Finals.