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NBA Finals: LeBron's Lakers favored over balanced Heat

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NBA Finals: LeBron's Lakers favored over balanced Heat
LeBron James will play in his 10th NBA Finals when the Los Angeles Lakers battle the Miami Heat starting Wednesday in Orlando, Fla. Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE

Sept. 30 (UPI) -- LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers are NBA Finals favorites this week in Orlando, Fla., but a balanced Miami Heat team has completed a string of upsets and should be a feisty foe for the top seed in the Western Conference.

Game 1 of the best-of-7 series tips off at 9 p.m. EDT Wednesday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex inside the Walt Disney World Resort. The Finals will air on ABC.

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"I'm not saying we are better than anyone else," Heat forward Jimmy Butler said Tuesday. "I just don't think we are underdogs. So what if nobody picked us to be here. That's OK. They didn't pick us to win [the Finals]. That's OK.

"At the end of the day, we embrace that."

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The championship series ends the longest season in NBA history, which included a four-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. The season stopped in mid-March and resumed in late July inside the NBA's protective bubble campus in Orlando.

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"It's probably the most challenging thing I've ever done as a professional," James said. "I knew what we were coming here for.

"I'd be lying if I said I knew the toll it would take on [my] mind and body. It has been extremely tough, but I'm here for one reason only: that's to compete for a championship."

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James will appear in the Finals for the 10th time in his career. He is on a quest to win a fourth championship overall and third title for his third different team. The Heat will attempt deny James of more hardware with defensive strategy, a cast of sharpshooters and a dynamic young superstar in Bam Adebayo.

"We have to match their energy," Adebayo said. "There can't be a second on the floor where they are playing harder than us.

"We have to make it tough for them."

James -- a four-time NBA MVP -- won his first title in 2012 while he was a member of the Heat, but that is just one of several historical storylines ahead of the 2020 NBA Finals.

Wins in Miami

Heat president Pat Riley played a large role in getting James to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Heat in 2010. The pair teamed up to reach the NBA Finals four consecutive times -- and win twice -- before James left Miami in 2014 and returned to the Cavaliers to win another title in 2016.

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Riley has since rebuilt the Heat into a formidable force to face one of his former teams -- the Lakers -- on the NBA's grandest stage.

Riley won a championship as a Lakers player in 1972, rejoined the franchise as a coach and won four championships with Los Angeles. He later became the Heat coach and won another championship in 2006.

The Lakers have a 37-27 all-time record in 64 games against the Heat. That includes two victories during the 2019-2020 season. Los Angeles beat Miami 95-80 on Nov. 8 in Los Angeles, and they beat the Heat 113-110 on Dec. 13 in Miami.

The franchises have never met in the playoffs.

Los Angeles will attempt to tie the Boston Celtics with a record 17 championships. The Heat have three titles, which is tied for sixth on the all-time list.

Lakers strengths

James has averaged 26.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists throughout the 2020 postseason. He has led the Lakers to a 12-3 record in the playoffs. Lakers forward Anthony Davis has also been dominant in the postseason, with a team-high 28.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.

The Lakers have been content with Davis as their top scorer as James orchestrates the offense. James has a playoff-best 133 assists in that role and led the NBA in assists this season.

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He also has helped anchor a strong defensive unit throughout the playoffs, with the Lakers allowing just 106.5 points per game -- third-fewest among postseason teams. Los Angeles also has blocked more shots than any other team.

Lakers role players Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard will need to step up to supplement James and Davis' efforts on offense and defense to combat a pesky Heat defense.

"Miami is a special team," Davis said. "A lot of people thought they shouldn't be here, but they are a team who fights. They have big time players. ... It's not going to be easy for us."

The Lakers have averaged the most assists per game and the best field goal percentage throughout the playoffs. Los Angeles also led the league in field goal percentage and blocked shots this season. The active Lakers defense ranked fifth in steals.

James and Davis have dominated defenders inside the paint this season, and the Lakers likely will try to slow down the Heat's tempo and use their size and physicality to control the Finals.

Los Angeles advanced to the Finals with series wins over the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets.

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Heat strengths

The Heat -- the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference -- had an impressive run to the title game. They match the Lakers with a 12-3 postseason record.

Miami swept the No. 4 seed Indiana Pacers in the first round. The Heat then knocked off the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Miami advanced to the championship with a 4-1 series win over the No. 3 Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.

Five-time All-Star Jimmy Butler paced the Heat with 19.9 points per game during the regular season, but Miami has used spectacular performances from young players to carry the team to the NBA Finals.

Adebayo has produced better statistics for each round the Heat progressed through the playoffs. Adebayo averaged 15 points and 11.3 rebounds per game in the first round. He posted 17.2 points and 12 rebounds per game in the second round. Adebayo stepped up again in the conference finals with 21.8 points and 11 rebounds per game.

"I feel like I'm out there hooping and doing the right things, making the right plays and holding myself accountable," Adebayo said. "We are in the playoffs. This is win or go home. When you have that type of mindset, you have to go out there and back that up."

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Veteran guard Goran Dragic leads the Heat with 20.9 points per game in the playoffs and often provides crucial drives to the rim when his team struggles on offense.

Butler's All-Star pedigree, Adebayo's emergence as an inside-out offensive and defensive factor, and Dragic's penetration often is more than most defenses can handle. The 3-point shooting from guard Tyler Herro and forwards Duncan Robinson and Jae Crowder have made the Heat offense nearly unstoppable this postseason.

Robinson ranked third in the NBA this season in made 3-pointers and fourth in 3-point percentage. Herro has shot 37% from 3-point range in the playoffs. Crowder has shot 34% from downtown this postseason. The Heat had the second-best 3-point percentage in the NBA during the season.

"They share the ball," James said of the Heat. "Everyone is live on the floor. There isn't one guy you can disrespect. They do a hell of a job of moving the ball."

NBA Finals: Lakers vs. Heat

Game 1: at 9 p.m. EDT Wednesday on ABC

Game 2: at 9 p.m. EDT Friday on ABC

Game 3: at 9 p.m. EDT Sunday on ABC

Game 4: at 9 p.m. EDT Oct. 6 on ABC

Game 5 (if necessary): at 9 p.m. EDT Oct. 9 on ABC

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Game 6 (if necessary): at 9 p.m. EDT Oct. 11 on ABC

Game 7 (if necessary): at 9 p.m. EDT Oct. 13 on ABC

Pick: Lakers in 7

Moments from LeBron James' career

St. Vincent-St. Mary High School senior LeBron James (L) drives around a Zanesvuille defender in Akron, Ohio, on February 14, 2003. James is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. A couple months later, the Cleveland Cavaliers coach was suspended because James worked out with the team before he graduated from high school. Photo by Tom Cammett/UPI | License Photo

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