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The Heat’s Tactics and Tweaks Are Futile Against the Lakers

A shorthanded Miami squad fought hard in Game 2, but elbow grease and heart can only carry you so far when Anthony Davis isn’t missing and LeBron James is trying to close you out

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After watching his Heat suffer a bracing beatdown in Game 1 of the 2020 NBA Finals, Erik Spoelstra did what comes naturally to a lifelong grinder of a head coach: he spent 48 hours searching for adjustments.

With visions of LeBron James putting targets on the backs of Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson still dancing through his nightmares, Spoelstra moved Miami away from man-to-man defense, packed the paint, and leaned harder on a 2-3 zone, betting that the Lakers’ red-hot 3-point shooting would regress to the mean. He tweaked the Heat’s method of attacking in pick-and-roll, having his screen-setters look to move a beat early before making contact and slip into the seams in L.A.’s hedging scheme to put pressure on the rim. He plugged Kelly Olynyk and Kendrick Nunn into the rotation, knowing that he’d need more shooting, penetration, and playmaking after a dismal offensive showing to start the Finals. He played Jimmy Butler, two days removed from a gnarly ankle roll, a near-Thibsian 44 minutes and 44 seconds, because it’s the Finals, and with Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic ruled out after their Game 1 injuries, Jimmy was the only star Miami had left.

The damnedest thing? Even without two of their three best players, a lot of it worked for the Heat. The Lakers attempted a Finals record 47 3-pointers, but shot a meh 34 percent on them. Miami’s offense was incredibly efficient: The Heat shot 51/41/91 as a team in Game 2, with 29 assists on 36 made field goals, only 10 turnovers, and a 31-for-34 mark at the foul line. Olynyk (24 points, nine rebounds, two assists) and Nunn (13 points, four rebounds, three assists, and one extremely surprising block on AD) provided precisely the sort of offensive spark Spoelstra sought. Butler was sensational, scoring or assisting on 57 of Miami’s 114 points while also guarding LeBron James for nearly the entire game. With some exceptions—a rough defensive end to the second quarter, the ongoing struggle of Duncan Robinson to get loose, etc.—about as much went right for the Heat in Game 2 as you could’ve expected, given the circumstances.

And none of it mattered. Like, at all. Because the Lakers have Anthony Davis and LeBron James, and the Heat don’t, and the sum of that particular math equation produced a 124-114 win and a 2-0 Lakers series lead.

As he did in Game 1, and especially in the absence of All-Defensive Teamer Adebayo, Davis looked like an absolutely unsolvable problem for minuscule Miami, scoring 32 points on a pristine 15-for-20 shooting to go with 14 rebounds in 40 minutes of work. Davis continued to terrorize the overmatched Jae Crowder, using his evolutionary combination of size and skill to comfortably shoot over the 6-foot-6 swingman at his leisure like Crowder was a tenacious and well-intentioned middle schooler.

Despite turning to reserve bigs Olynyk and Meyers Leonard for more minutes in Bam’s absence, Miami absolutely could not keep Davis off the glass, as he grabbed eight of L.A.’s 16 offensive rebounds, which led to 21 second-chance points. (One good way to manhandle an opponent shooting as efficiently as Miami on Friday? Get enough extra possessions to attempt 26 more shots than said opponent.) Time and again, Davis would find a crease in the zone, whether to grab an offensive board or to cut in behind a shifting defender along the baseline for a demoralizing dunk that reminded the Heat both why they were playing so much zone and why it just wasn’t going to work. Through two games, Davis has scored 66 points on 63.4 percent shooting in 78 minutes; he has been the most dominant force in the 2020 playoffs, and he has almost single-handedly dismantled the Heat, in ruthlessly efficient fashion.

The reason we say “almost?” Well, that’d be LeBron Raymone James, who, as it turns out, is pretty good at carving up any defense known to man if you give him a long enough look at it.

After Davis led the scoring through three quarters, James poured in 10 points in the fourth to close Miami out; he finished with 33 on 14-for-25 shooting, nine rebounds, and nine assists without a turnover in 39 minutes. All night long, LeBron sliced his way into openings in the zone, whether in the middle of it or down low near the baseline. He contorted Miami’s coverage until acres of space opened up for his teammates, and then dropped the ball off for an easy bucket inside. The Lakers got a ton of those.

Throughout the season, the massive Lakers dominated in the paint, ranking second in the NBA in both the regular season and the postseason in percentage of total field goal attempts taken at the rim, and no. 1 in shooting accuracy at the cup, according to Cleaning the Glass. They annexed that territory again on Friday, flexing their muscles to the tune of 56 points in the paint and a wild 33-for-50 mark (66 percent) on 2-point shots. That kind of interior scoring efficiency can cover up a lot of sins—like, for example, allowing a shorthanded opponent to score at a clip of 125.3 points per 100 possessions against your vaunted defense—which, after all, is kind of the whole idea behind getting two of the five best players in the world together in the first place.

The Lakers suffered through a disappointing, drama-filled campaign in LeBron’s first season, and had to fork over just about every present-tense and future asset that wasn’t nailed down to complete the deal that remade their roster last offseason. It was worth it, and it was always going to be worth it, because rolling out a lineup featuring two all-time mismatches like LeBron and AD is tantamount to starting a game with a 10-point lead (which, it just so happens, is what they won by in Game 2). They overwhelm the opposition, solve every problem, plug every leak, and lift every boat. Neither Spoelstra nor his players give a shit what the rest of us think about the 0-2 deficit they face; he did everything he could with what he had on hand, and he’ll do it again. He’ll have to come up with even more next time, though, because at the end of the day, even the sharpest tactics bow to titanic talent, and in LeBron and AD, the Lakers have more of that than anybody else in the league.