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Moving On Up: From Play-In to the Conference Finals

Lakers and Heat led by their stars from the play-in to the conference finals

Before the 2023 postseason, a play-in team hadn’t won more than two games in a series. Last Friday night the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers wrapped up their semi-final matchups to advance to the Western and Eastern Conference finals. These two teams were in the NBA Finals during the 2020 “bubble” season and are the first teams in the play-in tournament era to advance in the playoffs. Now, both teams are four wins away from a rematch.

Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers Go From Play-In to Conference Finals

Rocky Start to the Season

Miami had a disappointing season compared to a number-one record in the conference a season ago. The Heat started the season 10-12 with inconsistent results on the court. Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro missed a combined 33 regular season games due to injuries and the Heat didn’t play with the usual sense of urgency to start the year. Shooting struggles plagued the Heat, the effort was lackluster at best,

The Los Angeles Lakers had even more turmoil to start the year. After winning two of the teams’ first 12 games, it appeared as if the Lakers had yet another long season ahead of them.  LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed significant time at separate points of the season.  Since this team finished outside the play-in in 2022, it was imperative to turn the ship around.  The half-court offense wasn’t working. There wasn’t anyone to push the ball once LeBron would rest. Russell Westbrook just wasn’t the right fit for this squad.

Trade Deadline Overhaul

Los Angeles understood they couldn’t win with the roster constructed during the offseason. Russell WestbrookPatrick Beverlyand Thomas Bryant were among the names of players that were shipped off to other locations before the February trade deadline. D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimuraand Jarred Vanderbilt were the players added to the rotation. This lineup allowed for a player like Austin Reaves to excel in his role. Reaves shot a career-high 39.8 percent from the three-point line this year. Russell and Hachimura add speed and shooting ability that wasn’t there before the trade deadline. Vanderbilt added size and energy on the defensive side of the ball. There’s a recipe on how to win now. At the same time, there are still multiple top-ten players on the roster with LeBron and AD. The results of the trade deadline left the Lakers with the second-best record in the league since then.

Play-In Tournament

As noted above, the Lakers were playing at a new level during the second half of the season. Meanwhile, the Heat did just enough winning to secure a play-in tournament berth. L.A. was the 7th seed going into the postseason but, they were playing as well as anyone in the conference. Miami won 11 of their last 19 games to finish the regular season positioned at 7th in the east.

Since both teams were 7th seed in their conferences, this means that they would have two chances to secure one of the final playoff spots. Los Angeles had the Minnesota Timberwolves come to town. The Atlanta Hawks were on the schedule for the Miami Heat. The Wolves had a 15-point lead in the third quarter before the lid closed on them and the Lakers were able to make a comeback.  That game went to overtime, at this point it’s technically anybody’s game, but, the momentum belonged to the Lakers. LeBron went for 30 points and 10 rebounds. His running mate, AD had a stellar 24 points and 15 boards.

Miami was outplayed by Atlanta from the opening tip. Seven Hawks’ players were in double figures and Clint Capela owned the glass with 21 rebounds. The final score doesn’t indicate the dominant performance shown by the road team. Being that Miami was a 7th seed they had the opportunity for redemption as Chicago advanced for the right to play for the 8th seed.  In a back-and-forth bout, the Heat were down by six with a little over 7 minutes left to play. The Heat closed the game on a 15-1 run thanks to the play of Jimmy Butler and Max Strus. Both Butler and Strus went for over 30 to put the season on their backs.

How the Lakers Got Here

Since the Lakers won their first play-in tournament game, they were awarded the 7th seed. A match-up with the Memphis Grizzles was imminent. Miami was awarded the 8th seed after their play-in results. The Heat had the Milwaukee Bucks on their radar for the third time in four years. Injuries played a part in both opening-round series for these teams.

Memphis was without two front-court rotation players in Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke. Ja Morant landed awkwardly on his hand causing him to miss game 2. The Lakers countered every lineup that Memphis tried to throw at them. Anthony Davis averaged 4.3 blocks per game in the series. Being that AD leads the playoffs in blocks (3.3 per game), the defense has been the catalyst for these Lakers.

After a 40-point series-clinching win in game 6, the Lakers now had the defending champs on their horizon. The story around the Los Angeles versus Golden State series was the rivalry between LeBron James and Stephen Curry. This series was about the supporting cast around these two players. The team constructed after the trade deadline for the Lakers provided more plays than the team that Golden State tried to build. The Laker’s defense inside the paint coupled with the Warrior’s inconsistency shooting from deep was the recipe for the LakeShow.

How the Heat Got Here

Miami jumped out to an early lead in game 1 despite losing Tyler Herro to a hand injury. It was still about the play of Jimmy Butler. Milwaukee star big man  Giannis Antetokounmpo got hit by the injury bug as well. He went to the ground hard and landed on his back. He only played 11 mins in game 1 and missed games 2 and 3.  The Bucks went 1-1 during his absence, but even when Giannis was in the lineup, there was no answer for Jimmy Butler. Butler put up 56 and 42 in games 4 and 5 to eliminate the top seed in the conference. This was only the sixth time a 1. seed was upset by an 8-seeded team. Butler averaged 38.

Miami renewed a rivalry in the second round with the New York Knicks. Jimmy Butler missed game 2 with a rolled ankle. Miami lost that game, however, the Heat won the next two games to grab control of the series. Jalen Brunson played every minute of game 5 scoring 38 in the process. Brunson was equally aggressive in game 6 scoring 15 in the first quarter and 41 for the game. Brunson’s heroics wasn’t enough to halt the Heat. Bam Adebayo made the clutch plays when his team needed him. Whether it was scoring, passing, rebounds, or defense, Bam understood the moment.

What’s Next for These Teams?

The Los Angeles Lakers will the face Denver Nuggets for the western conference title. This will be the 8th instance where these two teams will face off in the postseason. The Lakers are 7-0  against Denver. To extend that streak, LeBron and AD will need to continue to dominate on defense. If Anthony Davis is the best player on the court, the Lakers should be title favorites.

The Miami Heat have a rematch of last year’s ECF that will start on Wednesday in Boston. The Heat had home-court last year and that didn’t matter. Jimmy Butler missed the three-pointer that would’ve sent Miami to the Finals. Jayson Tatum averaged 25 over the 7-game series and was the Eastern Conference Finals MVP.

This is only the second time a 7th and 8th seed has reached the conference finals. It’s the first time that it’s happened in the same postseason. Miami and Los Angeles were only one win apart according to regular season records. Now, two teams that had trouble in the play-in tournament are 8 wins away from the NBA title.


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