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The Lakers Take Away the Heat’s Space—and Likely Their Finals Hopes

Los Angeles clamped down on Miami in Game 4, turning Jimmy Butler back into a mere mortal and moving within one win of an NBA title

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Heat won Game 3 of the 2020 NBA Finals primarily because Jimmy Butler did an impressive enough impersonation of LeBron James to beat the man himself. On Tuesday, in A Pivotal Game 4™, the Lakers wrenched back control of the series and drew within one win of a championship primarily because they defended Butler like LeBron.

The Lakers absolutely smothered Miami in a 102-96 win that gives them a commanding 3-1 lead and a chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy on Friday night. L.A. held the Heat to 42.7 percent shooting as a team, with just 18 assists—the lowest total of the postseason for the bubble’s most pass-happy team—on 32 made field goals. In games 2 and 3, the freewheeling five-out attack that Miami had found in the absence of center Bam Adebayo had torched the Lakers to the tune of 121.2 points per 100 possessions, a rate miles above what the very best offenses in the league mustered during the regular season. In Game 4, though, the Heat sputtered, scoring at a 104.4 points-per-100 clip—worse than what the league-worst Warriors managed before the bubble.

The Heat had roasted L.A. in those two games on the strength of lineups featuring four shooters surrounding Butler, allowing the All-Star swingman to attack the paint, kick the ball out for open looks, or try to get all the way to the rim. But Adebayo’s return from the neck strain he suffered in Game 1 meant a reduced workload for stretch big Kelly Olynyk (just four points in 12 minutes after averaging 20.5 points in 34.2 minutes over games 2 and 3) and a DNP-CD for Meyers Leonard. And while Adebayo performed well enough after the layoff, turning in a strong second quarter and finishing with 15 points and seven rebounds in 33 minutes, the resultant shift in Miami’s on-court geometry—one less shooter spaced out to the arc, one more defender lurking near the paint—meant that Butler’s forays into the lane were sharply curtailed on Tuesday. He managed just six baskets in the lane in Game 4, and took only seven free throws, compared to 14 in Game 3; after he scored 26 points in the paint by himself in Game 3, Miami as a team produced only 34 in Game 4.

Anthony Davis was a big reason—the biggest reason, really. Butler started hot, again taking advantage of the Lakers’ willingness to give up soft switches and attacking downhill; he made his first five shots in the opening quarter to help the Heat stay connected with a Lakers team once again converting its 3s. In the second quarter, the Lakers decided to scrap the switch/hedge plan and go with something a little simpler, a little cleaner: stick Davis on Butler, and instruct him to go under screens rather than switching them.

If Butler saw all that space and decided to raise up to take jumpers, well, great—the Lakers would live with a guy who shot 31.7 percent from midrange and 24.4 percent from 3-point land this season trying to beat them. And if Butler stayed true to his nature, turning down those shots in favor of hunting other opportunities for teammates or driving into the lane to try to make something happen, well, great—the Lakers would trust their Defensive Player of the Year runner-up with the 7-foot-6 wingspan to absorb Butler’s battering-ram drives without giving up any ground and forcing him to take tough, contested shots.

It worked well: Butler scored just 11 points over the final three quarters on 3-for-12 shooting, and went 1-for-7 with Davis as his primary defender, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

“We have to try to help [Butler] a little bit more, create a little bit more space for him,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters after the game.

Space was tough to come by for Miami on Tuesday, especially when Davis was on the court. The only stretch when the Heat’s offense looked like its potent self from Game 3 came early in the second quarter, when Adebayo alternated between serving as the pivot in dribble-handoff actions with Duncan Robinson (17 points on seven shots and three assists in 33 minutes) and acting as the sort of jumbo creator who closed out the Celtics, driving the ball straight at Markieff Morris—in the game for Davis, who was getting his customary rest—and finishing through contact in the paint. Outside of that snippet, though, the Lakers were relentless in choking off Miami’s paths to easy points.

They clogged the paint to take away driving lanes, and harassed shooters like Robinson and Tyler Herro around handoffs; Miami shot just 11-for-32 from 3-point range, with many looks feeling rushed against an aggressive L.A. contest. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in particular was fantastic in pressing Robinson up top, staying attached to his hip around screens and trying to force him to put the ball on the deck. KCP also added 15 points—including two huge buckets in a 56-second span to put the Lakers up by seven with just over two minutes to go—and a season-high-tying five assists in a tremendous performance that the Lakers sorely needed.

They hauled back in transition, limiting Miami to just four total fast-break points, and continued their dominance on the offensive glass (10 offensive boards, 12 second-chance points, with Rajon Rondo playing a big role in that regard). They rotated hard, crisply, on a string, forcing the Heat to exhaust all options and funnel the ball to less dangerous ones: Jae Crowder and Kendrick Nunn went a combined 4-for-18 in this game, missing nine of their 13 3-point tries. (After two games in which the offense mostly worked fine, the Heat really could’ve used Goran Dragic in this one, as a creator to initiate those possessions and a credible shooter to end some of them. But that torn plantar fascia in his left foot isn’t going to heal up anytime soon, and despite his best efforts during pregame warmups, it seems unlikely he’ll be able to go in time for Game 5 on Friday.)

Los Angeles made Miami feel its length, size, and athleticism all game long, cranking up pressure and closing off passing lanes—15 Heat turnovers led to 19 Laker points—with Davis often operating as both the tip of the spear and the brick wall at the rim. The Lakers outscored Miami by 17 points in his 41 minutes which included four blocked shots, countless more altered, and nine defensive rebounds to go with his 22 points, capped by a potentially early series-ending dagger.

Maybe Davis gets your vote for Finals MVP. Maybe you’ll cast your ballot for LeBron, who battled some turnover issues and a shaky first half overall to finish with a game-high 28 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists. He also scored or set up 16 of L.A.’s 27 fourth-quarter points to put the Heat away. But in Game 4—as it’s been throughout the season—it was the Lakers’ defense that defanged a dangerous opponent. In the biggest game of the season, the Lakers dug in, slid their feet, and played huge, snatching the cape off of Butler’s back in the process and putting the Heat on the brink of elimination. As Davis told reporters, “If we play like that every game—you know, especially next game—then we’re going to become champions.”