2020 NBA Finals: Why Miami Heat Will Have to Make History to Stop Los Angeles Lakers

The Miami Heat may have to make history if they are to win a third NBA title and deny the LeBron James a fourth ring. The 2020 NBA Finals begin on Wednesday night and the Heat have been firmly cast in the role of underdogs, with the Los Angeles Lakers the overwhelming favorites in the eyes of the bookmakers.

The Purple and Gold are 1/4 favorites with DraftKings and William Hill to win a first NBA title in a decade, while FanDuel and BetMGM both have them at 7/25. The Heat, meanwhile, are 3/1 outsiders with both DraftKings and BetMGM, while FanDuel and William Hill have them at 29/10 and 16/5 outsiders respectively.

The Heat began the season as a 75/1 outsider to win the NBA title, the longest-odds of any team to have reached the NBA Finals over the last three decades according to ESPN's Stats & Information. The only team that was close to be as much of an underdog to win the NBA title ahead of the season and still reached the Finals were the New Jersey Nets in 2002, who began the campaign as 60-1 long shots to become world champions before coming undone at the final hurdle.

Ominously for the Heat, it was the Lakers who stopped the Nets' run, sweeping New Jersey in one of the most one-sided NBA Finals in recent history as Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant completed their three-peat.

It is not just the bookmakers who consider the Heat the underdogs ahead of the NBA Finals. FiveThirtyEight's statistical projections give the Heat a 45 percent chance of winning the Finals to the Lakers' 55 percent, while The Ringer's statistical model gives the Lakers a 61 percent chance to win the title to the Heat's 39.

To put the challenge facing Miami into context, the 2015 Golden State Warriors have been the unlikeliest NBA title winners of the last three decades as they began the season as 28/1 outsiders to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Over the same period, the grand total of zero teams beginning the season with odds to make the NBA Finals longer than 30-1 reached the title series.

The Heat arrived into the playoffs as the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, making them the first team outside the top two seeds to reach the NBA Finals since the fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the Warriors in the 2018 NBA Finals.

The Cavs were the exception to the rule as the top two seeds in each conference have dominated the NBA Finals for the best part of the last decade, since the third-seeded Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title in 2011, incidentally defeating the Heat in the Finals—the 2002 Lakers and the 2004 Detroit Pistons also entered the playoffs as the third seed in their respective conference en route to the NBA title.

Miami is also the first team seeded lower than fourth to reach the NBA Finals since the eighth-seeded New York Knicks lost in five games to the San Antonio Spurs in 1999.

Only two teams seeded lower than third in their conference have ever won the title. In 1969, the fourth-seeded Celtics defeated the Lakers in seven games, while in 1995 the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets swept the Orlando Magic to win back-to-back titles.

To put it another way, over 70 percent of NBA Finals played since the shot clock was introduced in 1954 have been won by the No. 1 seeded team.

The Heat, however, have hitherto embraced the role of underdogs. Miami swept the fourth-seeded Indiana Pacers in the first round, before upsetting the Milwaukee Bucks, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and holder of the league's best regular season record, in the Conference Semifinals and defeating the No. 3-seeded Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

"So what that nobody picked us to be here? That's OK. Pretty sure nobody is picking us to win, either. That's OK," Miami star Jimmy Butler told reporters at a press conference before Game 1.

"But we understand that. We embrace that, because, at the end of the day, we truly don't care. We're just going to go out here and compete, play together like we always have, and I'm going to see where we end up.

"But at the end of the day we're going to do this our way, the Miami Heat way, and that way has worked for us all year long."

Miami Heat, NBA Finals
The Miami Heat celebrate winning the Eastern Conference Finals after defeating the Boston Celtics in six games during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, on September 27. Miami will face the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Kevin C. Cox/Getty