And then there were two.
With three rounds of playoff hoops in the books, only the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat remain in pursuit of the 2020 NBA title. The Lakers knocked out all three of their postseason matchups by 4-1 counts, while each Heat series lasted one game longer than the last (sweep of the Indiana Pacers, 4-1 win over the Milwaukee Bucks and finally a 4-2 triumph over the Boston Celtics).
The storylines are delectable, starting with the connections between the Lakers' biggest star, LeBron James, and the Heat organization. James captured his first two championships and made four straight Finals appearances after joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami during the 2010 offseason. Heat president Pat Riley assembled that roster, and Heat skipper Erik Spoelstra coached it.
From there, the plot lines filter down to a tremendous battle between Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo, the Finals returns of Lakers veterans Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard, the resurgent play of 34-year-old Heat point guard Goran Dragic and many, many more fascinating developments to watch.
Enough with the buildup, though, let's dig into the matchup with scheduling information, the latest odds from FanDuel and our championship-round prediction.
2020 NBA Finals Schedule
Game 1: Wednesday, Sept. 30 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 2: Friday, Oct. 2 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 3: Sunday, Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 4: Tuesday, Oct. 6 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 5*: Friday, Oct. 9 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 6*: Sunday, Oct. 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 7*: Tuesday, Oct. 13 at 9 p.m. ET
* if necessary
** All games on ABC
2020 NBA Finals Odds
Game 1: Lakers -5 | O/U 217.5
Series: Lakers -370 | Heat +250
2020 NBA Finals Prediction
Before keying you in on where to look to dissect these teams, let's start with where you shouldn't: the regular season.
Yes, the Lakers had a better winning percentage (.732 to .603) and a higher net efficiency rating (plus-5.6 to plus-2.7). And yes, the Lakers swept the season series 2-0.
Those things shouldn't be discarded—they play a factor in L.A. being a clear favorite, but regular-season performance has never felt less relevant given the unique nature of these Finals. Simply put, the Heat have been a different team since relocating to the bubble—and they're a different squad than the Lakers beat twice before the calendar flipped to 2020.
Narrowing the lens to the bubble puts these clubs in much closer proximity. Both went 12-3 through the first three rounds, and while L.A. had the postseason's best net rating, Miami was only two spots behind.
The Heat's Orlando experience featured a tightly connected team in a near-constant state of evolution. Dragic took over lead-scoring duties while upping his scoring average from 16.2 to 20.9. Adebayo quite possibly took a superstar turn, highlighted by his monstrous 32-point, 14-rebound, five-assist masterpiece in the Heat's close-out victory over the Celtics.
Rookie Tyler Herro landed a knockout punch with a 37-point outburst in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. Veteran Andre Iguodala helped secure his sixth straight Finals trip with 15 points on 5-of-5 shooting (4-of-4 from range) in Game 6. Jimmy Butler shape-shifted however the game deemed necessary, shouldering the scoring load one night, serving as primary playmaker the next and always emptying his fuel tank at the defensive end.
The Heat have heart—or culture, as they call it—and they're powered by a sense of belief in this team few outside of South Florida shared. They believe they belong here, and they relish in the opportunity to prove their doubters wrong.
"You had to go through something," Heat lifer Udonis Haslem told reporters. "You had to go through something in life that put a chip on your shoulder. And that's built grit inside you that you're willing to go through extreme circumstances to get where you're trying to go."
The Lakers are fundamentally built differently.
It's hard to feel doubted when you're based on Hollywood and built around a pair of No. 1 picks who are powering their way to eventual Hall of Fame enshrinement in James (2003) and Davis (2012). That doesn't mean they feel a sense of entitlement, of course, but their path to the Finals is, for many, a realization of destiny.
"This is what I came here for," James said after knocking out the Denver Nuggets with a 38-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in Game 5.
L.A. is the more top-heavy team. It's unclear who the team's third-best player is—Danny Green? Kyle Kuzma? Playoff Rondo?—and that designation might change from one night to the next. But James and Davis are the constants, and they're the biggest challenge standing in front of Miami.
The Heat can make their lives difficult, so much as anyone can bother superstars of this ilk. Spoelstra coached James for four seasons, so he understands his game as well as any coach. Iguodala defended James in four consecutive Finals (earning the 2015 Finals MVP largely for his defensive work), so his book on James is the length of a novel.
With Davis, Miami might have the most compelling matchup of anyone in Adebayo. The 6'9", 255-pounder possesses a similarly unfair combination of length, athleticism and explosiveness, so at the very least, he won't be physically overwhelmed by the assignment.
The question is whether any of that matters. In other words, even the best-equipped defenses may not be actually equipped to contain this uber-dynamic duo.
The Lakers' supporting cast needs to hit shots, because the Heat have shooters. L.A. coach Frank Vogel must coach the series of his life, because Spoelstra is putting on a coaching clinic this postseason. The Lakers need to win this series because a team as disciplined, conditioned and tenacious as the Heat isn't going to lose it on their own.
Ultimately, though, the onus is on James and Davis to carry the Purple and Gold to the championship podium. And just like the oddsmakers in Vegas, we have a hard time betting against their ability to do so.
Prediction: Lakers in six.