The Los Angeles Lakers took a commanding 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals by leaning on the thing that has defined their greatness all season: defense. The Lakers not only held the Miami Heat to 96 points, their lowest output of the postseason, but they also did so with a key tactical adjustment, putting Anthony Davis on Jimmy Butler, which shut down the man who torched the Lakers in Game 3.
Let’s take a look at how the Lakers pulled off this critical win and what it means heading into Game 5 on Friday (9 p.m. ET on ABC and the ESPN App).
The Lakers looked inevitable
Davis was the primary defender against Butler on 11 shots Tuesday, per ESPN tracking, after he defended just four shots from Butler in the first three games of the series. Butler made three of his final 12 attempts, including going 1-for-7 with Davis as his primary defender.
It’s a testament to the Brow’s versatility that head coach Frank Vogel would consider putting him on Butler. Davis is a 7-footer who almost always defends bigs. But Davis is a phenomenal athlete, and after Butler dominated the Lakers in the paint in Game 3, AD and LeBron James made sure that didn’t happen again. Of Butler’s 17 shots, 15 were defended by Davis or James.
These are not the Showtime Lakers. This team has been a defensive juggernaut all season, and the Lakers flexed those muscles in Game 4. Their defensive efficiency in the half court improved to 98.6 points allowed per 100 possessions in Game 4 after they gave up 123.9 in Games 2 and 3, according to Second Spectrum.
While Butler started strong and finished poorly, James did the opposite. After an awkward first quarter that included five turnovers, James ended the game as the leading scorer and leading rebounder. A remarkable 20 of his 28 points came in a pivotal second half that brought his team within one win of a title.
If there was one sequence that epitomized this game, it happened late in the fourth quarter. With the Lakers up 90-88 and 3:05 remaining, Butler missed an open corner 3. James grabbed the board, pushed the ball up the floor and delivered a crisp transition dime to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who drained a corner 3.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope knocks down a 3-pointer, then gets a layup, putting the Lakers up seven with two minutes left in the fourth.
Caldwell-Pope was the X factor for the purple and gold, scoring 15 points and adding five assists. The Lakers are 12-1 this postseason when he scores at least 10 points, and his 3-point shooting has given this team a huge lift. KCP has made 40 3-pointers in the postseason, tied for second most in a playoffs in Lakers history. Only Kobe Bryant in 2010 had more 3s.
The Lakers made all the winning plays down the stretch. We shouldn’t be surprised. These players are somehow 56-0 after leading at the end of the third quarter.
The Lakers know how to finish games. Even when they missed shots down the stretch, they seemed to get their own rebounds, depriving Miami of the ability to get the stops needed to even the score. The Lakers’ four fourth-quarter offensive rebounds were absolutely crucial.
From Miami’s perspective, the absence of Goran Dragic loomed large. With Davis and James able to focus on containing Butler, the Heat didn’t have enough firepower elsewhere.
Dragic is more than just this team’s starting point guard. He was also its leading scorer coming into these Finals. In the conference finals against the Boston Celtics, Dragic ran more than 24 pick-and-roll plays per game, per Second Spectrum. With a starting PG on the shelf, Miami’s half-court options aren’t good enough to overpower one of the best defenses in the league, even with Bam Adebayo back in the fold.
Adebayo played OK in his return to action, but his playmaking was not up to his high standards. Adebayo ended the game with just one assist, his lowest such mark since January.
Unfortunately, injuries are a fact of life in the NBA, and for the second straight year, the Finals have been affected by them.
Last season, the Golden State Warriors couldn’t hang with the Toronto Raptors after losing Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Adebayo and Dragic don’t have the same superstar clout as those fellas, but they are two of Miami’s three most important players. It’s hard to see how the Heat would’ve made it this far without them. In fact, it’s impressive that Miami has made things this competitive while missing both players at full strength against a LeBron James team firing on all cylinders.
Looking ahead to Game 5, the Miami offense has to be better to extend the series. Butler will have to overcome the Davis matchup, and his teammates will have to give him more help. The Heat bench combined to go 4-for-19 from the field for just 13 points Tuesday, and Heat shooters converted just three of their 14 open 3s, per Second Spectrum. It’s a make-or-miss league, and Miami’s off-ball players didn’t make enough shots to hang.
For an undermanned Heat team to beat LeBron, AD and the Lakers in the Finals, Miami will have to play pretty close to perfectly. It did that in Game 3 but failed to do so again in Game 4. Now the Heat need three straight perfect games to steal a bubble championship.