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NBA Finals betting: Do the underdog Heat have a shot to knock off LeBron James and the Lakers?

Frank Schwab
·5-min read

The odds on the NBA Finals are something you’d expect to see in the first round, not between two conference champions.

The Miami Heat are +300 at BetMGM to win the NBA Finals, which start Wednesday. The Lakers, who were a popular championship bet in future markets, are -358. That’s a big spread for a championship round.

The Lakers are getting almost all the action too. As of Wednesday morning, 95.3% of the money bet on Game 1 has come in on the Lakers according to BetMGM. The Lakers are 4.5-point favorites. When it comes to series bets, 60.4% of the bets and 72.5% of the money has come in on the Lakers.

Could the prohibitive odds on Los Angeles lead to some value on the Heat at 3-to-1? Do they really have a shot to upset the heavily-favored Lakers?

You can make an argument for it.

Heat have been great in the playoffs

It’s not like the Heat will be intimidated. Jimmy Butler wouldn’t let that happen anyway.

The Heat did not back into the Finals. They swept the Indiana Pacers, which could have been brushed off. Then they beat the top-seed Milwaukee Bucks 4-1, with the Bucks’ only win coming in overtime. That was eye-opening. If the Heat can beat the Bucks, they won’t be scared of the Lakers either. The Heat finished their fantastic run through the East with a 4-2 win over the Boston Celtics.

A 12-3 record in the playoffs is impressive, and the Heat didn’t have an easy road. Butler, Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic are quality players, Tyler Herro has had a playoff breakout and Duncan Robinson can get hot from 3 and help steal a game or two. The Heat can’t match the Lakers’ star duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but they don’t lack stars of their own.

Given the long layoff from March to August, it’s probably wise to judge teams solely on what they have done in the Orlando bubble. Based just on that, the Heat have been much better than the +300 odds would lead you to believe.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) defends Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James in a regular-season game. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) defends Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James in a regular-season game. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Heat-Lakers played a close regular-season game

One regular-season game means very little, but it’s still good to remember that the Heat have shown they can hang with the Lakers, even when James and Davis dominate.

James and Davis combined for 61 points in a 113-110 win on Dec. 13. Butler missed a shot at the buzzer that would have sent the game to overtime. It was close, and the Heat didn’t have Dragic that night.

The Lakers did dominate a Nov. 8 game in a 95-80 win over Miami. There’s likely not too much to take from either game. They both seem like they happened a decade ago. The Heat are a much different team now. However, it probably doesn’t hurt that the Heat know they can hang with the Lakers, based on that December game.

Heat’s defensive versatility could help

The Heat played a good amount of zone defense in the playoffs, and that’s an unusual look the Lakers will have to get used to.

The Heat were able to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo from getting to the rim, and maybe that is a good sign for their ability to keep James from driving at will. Adebayo limited Davis to 6-of-14 shooting when they matched up against each other in the regular season, via NBA.com. Erik Spoelstra has done a good job figuring out how to maximize his talent, and if the Heat can at least make life a little difficult on James and Davis and make everyone else beat them, it would give them a better shot to win.

This is a weird postseason

The unusual nature of the 2020 NBA postseason has to be factored in. The playoffs would have played out differently with normal circumstances like home-court advantage, the travel grind and officiating being influenced by fans. We don’t know how it would have been different, but it’s safe to say it would have changed.

The Heat doesn’t have to deal with flying to California and playing Game 1 and 2 at Staples Center. Maybe the same can be said for the Lakers not having to fly all the way to Florida, but if there was ever a season in which we’d get an unusual champion, this is it. The Heat would be the rare champ without an obvious Hall of Fame player leading the way (the last 40 or so years, the 2004 Detroit Pistons might be the only team that didn’t have an obvious legend on an NBA championship team). There has only been one team to finish lower than the Heat’s No. 5 seed to win an NBA title, and that was the sixth-seeded 1995 Houston Rockets. The Heat would be a strange champion, but it has been a strange year.

The Lakers are favored for a reason. They were fantastic in the regular season, and once they turned it on after a slow start in the bubble they looked unbeatable at times. But the odds matter. The Heat are a huge underdog for a championship series. They should have more than a remote chance to shock the world.

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