On the eve of a potential closeout Game 5 (Friday, 9 p.m. ET on ABC), our ESPN Forecast panel of experts tackles the two biggest questions heading into what could be the final game inside the league’s Orlando, Florida, bubble.
Who will win NBA Finals Game 5?
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) projects the Lakers as a 58% favorite to win Game 5 and secure the NBA title, but our panel gives an even heavier edge to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Lakers: 71%
Miami Heat: 29%
How the Lakers close out the series
Capturing the franchise’s 17th championship will require the Lakers’ full attention to the details that got them this far inside the bubble:
The Lakers will need to get Anthony Davis cooking early. Davis’ impact cannot be simply measured by statistics. Offensively, he is unstoppable when aggressive and not mired in foul trouble like he was in Game 3. Davis in an early and aggressive rhythm could get Bam Adebayo and others in foul trouble themselves. Defensively, Davis is smothering — just ask Jimmy Butler. And during Game 4, Davis played 42 minutes. During the six minutes he sat, the Heat outscored the Lakers 22-11.
The Lakers are also at their best on the run, and their fast break is often sparked by their defense. When they get steals, deflections and stops, LeBron James is lethal: He can take a rebound and either heave it downcourt to a leaking teammate; or he can start a break and either score at the rim or draw Heat defenders to find an open shooter.
And when James creates for shooters, the Lakers’ third star, which has been filled by committee, often emerges. Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma have all made big plays and hit big shots, and a couple of them will be needed again.
“Our third star is whoever has the open shot,” Alex Caruso said after Game 4.
Finally, James has to be the closer that he is on this stage. He is 3-0 during his career when in position to clinch the Finals. James knows what a championship with a third franchise, especially one as storied as the Lakers, will do for his legacy. He demands supreme effort and attention from his teammates. To win Game 5 and capture the title, the Lakers will have to follow James’ lead.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
Jimmy Butler speaks on how the team’s confidence never changes no matter if they are up or down in the series.
How the Heat force a Game 6
The Heat desperately need somebody to help Butler on offense — especially if he sees James and Davis as much as he did throughout Game 4. If Goran Dragic remains out with a foot injury suffered in Game 1 — the onus might fall on Kendrick Nunn. The rookie guard was just 2-for-11 from the field and missed several open looks in Game 4. Jae Crowder also needs to stretch the floor by knocking down a few early 3-pointers.
In the end, the Heat might only go as far as Butler carries them — especially with Adebayo still limited because of a neck injury that caused the All-Star big man to miss Games 2 and 3.
Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson have the shooting prowess to help swing Game 5, but to extend the series, Butler must put this group on his back down the stretch like he did in Miami’s Game 3 victory. If the final few minutes of Tuesday’s Game 4 are any indication, look for James to see even more time on Butler if the contest is close in the waning moments.
— Nick Friedell
LeBron or AD for Finals MVP?
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, James and Davis are on pace to become the fourth pair of teammates in NBA history to each average more than 25 points per game while shooting better than 50% in a Finals series — and the first since Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2002.
But which superstar has been more valuable heading into Game 5? Our panel puts the three-time Finals MVP in the driver’s seat for another.
If the Lakers win Game 5, who should be named Finals MVP?
LeBron James: 67%
Anthony Davis: 33%
If the Lakers win Game 5, who will be named Finals MVP?
LeBron James: 83%
Anthony Davis: 17%
Kendrick Perkins talks up Anthony Davis’ defensive effort in the Lakers’ Game 4 win and jokes that the Heat need prime Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal to clear quarantine to have a chance of coming back in the series.
The case for LeBron: Why this is King James’ award to lose
Only five times in Finals history has a player led his team in scoring, rebounds and assists while winning the series.
Magic Johnson earned Finals MVP when he became the first player to accomplish the feat in 1987. MVP voters bestowed the honor on Tim Duncan when he pulled it off in 2003. Same for James himself in 2012 and 2013 with the Heat and again in 2016 with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
So why would this occasion be any different?
With all due respect to Davis, it’s hard to argue that a guy can be the most valuable player in a series in which his teammate scores more points, grabs more rebounds and dishes out more assists. Especially considering the Lakers likely would have swept the Heat if not for Davis’ off night in Game 3, when foul trouble limited him to 15 points, five rebounds and a minus-26 in 33 minutes.
An argument for Davis can be based on his impact on the defensive end, especially during Game 4 when he served as the primary defender on Butler and bothered the Heat star. James had a 28-point, 12-rebound, eight-assist performance in that win. And when the Heat made their push to pull within two points with a few minutes to go, James delivered the most critical play of the game, grabbing a rebound, pushing the ball in transition, drawing three Miami defenders and kicking it to Caldwell-Pope in the corner for a wide-open 3.
If you want to make a case that Davis is the most valuable sidekick of James’ career, bumping Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving down a notch, have at it.
But James, the clear Finals MVP, remains the king.
— Tim MacMahon
The case for AD: Why the Brow should win his first Finals MVP
Davis is the biggest reason the Lakers are a win away from beating the Heat for L.A.’s first championship since 2010.
It was Davis’ dominance at both ends in the paint that drove the Lakers to a 2-0 lead in the series; Miami had no answer for Davis as he romped his way to 66 points on 26-of-41 shooting (63%) to go along with 23 rebounds.
In Game 4, Davis shined on defense. Coach Frank Vogel turned to him to defend the smaller Butler after Butler’s 40-point triple-double in Game 3, and Davis blanketed Butler (who shot 1-for-7 against him over the final three quarters, according to ESPN Stats & Info data) while blocking four shots.
Yes, in between those stretches Davis struggled in Game 3. Plagued by foul trouble, he was limited to 15 points and five rebounds in 33 minutes, a big reason the Heat were able to get their lone win so far. But Finals MVP is for the entirety of the series, and over that span, Davis has been efficient and effective.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, Davis’ 70.1% true shooting percentage would be third best in a Finals series with at least 50 field-goal attempts in the past two decades, trailing Ray Allen in 2008 (70.8%) and Klay Thompson last year (70.6%).
Perhaps most impressive is this: In the 37 minutes Davis has played with James on the bench in the Finals, the Lakers are plus-11. On the flip side, they’ve been outscored by two points with Davis resting and James on the court.
Add it up and you get an MVP performance by Davis.
— Kevin Pelton