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We now are nearly two decades removed from the NBA’s first epoch, ruled by big men who could be identified by a single name: Russ, Wilt, Kareem, Shaq. For the first half-century of the league’s existence, teams that did not feature such a player — preferably one of them in particular — had little chance to compete for its championship.

Michael Jordan started to change that principle. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James continued the trend. Statistical analysis that emphasized the value of the 3-pointer, and Steph Curry’s mastery of the art, sealed it. The NBA no longer is a center’s league. Some teams barely bother to fill the position.

And yet, the crucial matchup of the 2020 NBA Finals, which begin Wednesday at 9 p.m., is, um, at center.

No, seriously.

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At 6-9, the Heat’s Bam Adebayo would not have been a center in yesterday’s NBA, and he does not play the position anything like Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar or O’Neal. (There are echoes of Bill Walton’s game, but he yielded only one title for the Trail Blazers).

Adebayo’s astonishing versatility during these playoffs, and the difficulty for opposing teams in trying to control the wide variety of challenges he presents, is the greatest reason for Miami’s surprising advance to the Finals and its near-dominance along the way.

Adebayo frequently now functions as a “point center,” the offense flowing through his hands and developing off his moves and reads. He is an exceptional ballhandler at his size, which often disadvantages opposing big men with quick drives to the goal that end with a layup, dunk or feed, and he is an effective passer, averaging 4.9 assists in 15 playoff games, 12 of which the Heat won.

“The thing with Bam, he handles the ball so well. He’s got so much confidence,” Fox Sports and Big Ten Network basketball analyst Stephen Bardo told Sporting News. “Whatever the read is, Bam can do it.

“They started experimenting with him there early, and he got comfortable with it. And they saw the efficiency of the other guys that could fit with him rise. It opens the floor for everybody. It’s been a revelation.”

The Lakers would seem to have the ideal counter for Adebayo’s talents in 6-10 Anthony Davis, who has a more traditional center’s body in terms of height and length but who always has moved with the grace and quickness of a smaller player. Davis consistently has expressed that he prefers not to operate as a center because it wears down his body; given that he is averaging 28.8 points with an effective field goal percentage of .600, it seems wise to adjust to his preference.

For seven games, though, going against someone who is 255 pounds rather than 284 like the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic? Davis ought to be able to handle that.

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Bardo, whose “Bardo’s Breakdown” show on Facebook Live frequently focuses on the NBA, doesn’t believe Davis should, most of the time. He expects the Lakers will stick with Dwight Howard, whose prominence in the LA rotation grew during the five games against Denver in the Western Conference finals.

“You’ll see Davis guarding Adebayo because of the motion offense nature of Miami’s attack, so there’ll be switches. But the Lakers don’t want to have AD on Bam, because Bam will wear him out,” Bardo told SN. “I think it’s putting too much pressure on Anthony Davis defensively. It gets into his legs.

“Whenever Nikola Jokic, in the previous series, was able to bang Anthony Davis in the first half, his production went way down in the second half. I think Frank Vogel and his staff see that. An excited, role-accepting Dwight Howard would be a much better option on the defensive end, in my opinion, against Bam than Anthony Davis. Because you don’t need Howard’s offense. You need Anthony Davis’ offense.

“I think what the Lakers would do is tell Howard: If you’ve got to give up something, give up the jumper. Keep him out of the paint. Once he goes to the jumper, get a hand up and bother his shot. But when Bam starts putting it on the deck and getting into the paint, oh, it’s a nightmare. Bam can stick the shot, but he doesn’t want to take eight or 10 jumpers a game. He wants the physical contact. He wants to get in the paint. I think Dwight Howard could do a pretty good job in terms of limiting his paint touches off the bounce.”

Using Howard would put Davis in some interesting individual matchups. With Lakers star LeBron James available to match against Heat star Jimmy Butler, it would mean Davis going against 6-7 wing Duncan Robinson, an expert shooter who spends his time on offense running through and around screens. Bardo believes rather than have Davis attempt to cope with all that traffic, the Lakers would execute a switching scheme on D.

“It’s: Who can flip who?” Bardo said. “Miami wants to go smaller, and the Lakers are comfortable going big. How can you flip the matchup to your benefit? And I think Dwight Howard is the key.

“Bam’s going to get his, but if he doesn’t go crazy, and people can stay at home where Robinson’s not getting open looks, Tyler Herro’s not breaking guys off the bounce — if they can stay home defensively, the Lakers have a big-time advantage.”

Obviously, with such players as James and Butler involved, and Herro now established as a reliable weapon, there will be plenty of other players whose performances will dictate the development of the 2020 NBA Finals.

The center position, though, once again is at center stage.

For Bam Adebayo to make this so is a heck of an upset before a game has been played.

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September 30, 2020
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