The conference finals are heating up, with the Nuggets taking one game and nearly a second from the Lakers, and the Heat moving within one win of the Finals—and a potential reunion with old pal LeBron James. Let’s zip around the league with one key observation about each remaining team.
Denver: Jamal Murray’s Climb Up Yet Another Leaderboard
The leaderboard for most 3-point makes in a single postseason is unsurprisingly populated by two names at the top:
1 (tie). Steph Curry, 2014-15 (98 makes)
1 (tie). Klay Thompson, 2015-16 (98)
3. Curry, 2018-19 (92)
4. Curry, 2015-16 (80)
5. Curry, 2016-17 (72)
6. Thompson, 2018-19 (70)
7. Thompson, 2017-18 (67)
8. J.R. Smith, 2015-16 (65)
9. Curry, 2017-18 (64)
10. Jamal Murray, 2019-20 (62—and counting)
With at least two games left to play, Murray should easily pass Smith for the top spot in league history for a player not named Curry or Thompson. Now, that designation comes with a caveat: We’re looking at total 3-point makes, so Denver’s perpetually long series gives Murray an advantage. In the first two rounds, Murray had 14 games to make 3-pointers, while Jae Crowder—who’s making almost as many per game as Murray in this postseason—had only nine games.
But that’s only a minor caveat. (After all, Curry took a whole lot of 3s, too.) At just 23 years old, Murray is also canning his 3-point attempts with frightening accuracy, even as he takes most of them as pull-ups rather than easier catch-and-shoot opportunities. In his regular-season career, the Nuggets guard is only a 35.8 percent 3-point shooter, and he hit just 33.7 percent in the playoffs last season. This postseason, he’s up to 47.7 percent—a smidge away from the most accurate high-volume playoff campaign in league history.
Murray won’t make half his long-range attempts going forward because nobody can stay that hot for long, but he will still raise his long-term ceiling significantly if he can boost his accuracy well above the average rate at which he’s hovered so far in his career. That’s not an easy task for guards who have to take difficult shots and create much of their own offense. In the past three seasons, 20 guards have been All-Stars, and Curry and Thompson are the only members of that group who are 40 percent 3-point shooters in their careers. Most elite guards are closer to the mid-30s, where Murray resides; the median for that 20-guard group—of which Murray, never an All-Star, is not a part—is 35.8 percent accuracy, precisely Murray’s career mark.
But if Murray wants to become the kind of player who warps opposing defenses by virtue of his own inescapable gravity, and if he aims to create a perpetual advantage on the offensive end by teaming with Nikola Jokic, this playoff run is a worthy, necessary step. A little extra 3-point threat goes a long way in the modern NBA.
Miami: A Most Egalitarian Offense
Goran Dragic isn’t a typical leading scorer for a conference finals team. He came off the bench in all but one game before the bubble and then moved into the starting lineup in Orlando. In terms of pure talent, he probably isn’t the best or second-best player on the Heat. And he’s not scoring all that much.
Dragic has accounted for 19 percent of the Heat’s overall point total this postseason. He and Jimmy Butler—the Heat’s second-leading scorer in the playoffs—have accounted for 38 percent. Those are among the lowest such rates for any conference finalist this century.
This year’s performance represents a break especially from previous Heat contenders, which relied on the superstar pairings of James-Wade and Wade-Shaq.
Scoring Distribution for Heat Conference Finalists
|Points From Top Scorer
|Points From Top Two Scorers
|Points From Top Scorer
|Points From Top Two Scorers
Given Miami’s personnel, this sort of offensive distribution is necessary. The Heat’s two best players aren’t able to stretch the floor—a spacing disaster in the modern game if they aren’t surrounded by knockdown shooters like Crowder, Duncan Robinson, and rookie sensation Tyler Herro. In the regular season, Butler and Adebayo combined to make just 0.5 3s per game; in the playoffs, they’re at 0.8, all from Butler.
Butler is passive at times for an ostensible lead option, taking single-digit shot attempts three times this postseason. And Adebayo, for all his prodigious two-way talents, is much better at creating open looks for others than himself. As The Athletic’s Seth Partnow noted before Game 4, Adebayo is shooting 65.9 percent this postseason when firing within two seconds of receiving a pass or grabbing an offensive rebound. When he holds the ball longer, he’s shooting just 38.5 percent.
Yet the offense still hums because of the players surrounding that lead pair, and because of the system Erik Spoelstra implements to maximize that talent. Dragic’s return to an All-NBA level has been crucial, but so is the environment in which he’s improved. Miami’s assist percentage this postseason (65.6 percent of baskets) approaches the best of the Warriors from recent playoffs.
The lowest point on that points distribution graph belongs to the 2013-14 Spurs, at 16 percent for the leading scorer and 32 percent for the top two. There are a number of similarities between the two outfits’ offensive approaches. The two leading scorers for those title-winning Spurs were Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, who made a combined 0.4 3s per game in the regular season (0.6 in the playoffs). Manu Ginobili, a slashing, left-handed sixth man who played starter’s minutes, is similar enough to Dragic to work in this analogy. But the Spurs scored with a fluid system that surrounded the top players with shooting. Role players—Danny Green, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli—spread the floor while Parker and Duncan did damage inside. The offense was unstoppable and unfathomably gorgeous.
Of course, those Spurs also had a budding Kawhi Leonard, who was named Finals MVP. The Heat don’t. But nobody’s saying the Heat need to solve the sport of basketball, as those Spurs did against Miami in the Finals. They’re doing just fine with their distributed offense so far.
Los Angeles: The Ever-Changing Third Scorer Role
The Lakers are the reverse Heat: They know their top two scorers with near certainty, but the identity of the third option is constantly in flux. (The totals in this chart don’t add up to 13 games, the Lakers’ total this postseason, in every column because of players who tied in points in a game.)
Postseason Games As a High Scorer for the Lakers
|No. 1 Scorer
|No. 2 Scorer
|No. 3 Scorer
|No. 1 Scorer
|No. 2 Scorer
|No. 3 Scorer
Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma are the leading candidates, but they’re scarcely averaging double figures in the playoffs. In one sense, this is a concern for the team because Davis and LeBron can’t outscore teams all by themselves. And when every supporting player is off at the same time, the Lakers are in trouble; in their three losses so far, players other than the two superstars have combined to shoot 17-for-69 (24.6 percent) on 3s.
But Davis and LeBron can kind of outscore teams all by themselves, as they did against the Trail Blazers in the clinching Game 5 of their first-round series (79 combined points on just 37 shots). Their baseline is so high—a combined 54.5 points per game this postseason—that the supporting cast doesn’t need to do much. In fact, the varied options give the Lakers fallback plans: If Caldwell-Pope isn’t making shots, then the team’s leaders have no qualms turning to Kuzma instead, or Morris, or Caruso, or on and on.
One game, Morris steps up; the next, Rondo takes a turn. Even J.R. Smith got involved in Game 2 against the Trail Blazers, though he hasn’t scored more than three points in a game since. As long as the leading duo continues scoring as it has all season, the Lakers just need one or two supporting players to step up and make a couple open shots. They’re not asking the non-stars to do too much on offense, while relying on the stout defenders across the roster to pave the way to victory.
Boston: A New Five-Man Lineup—Finally
Brad Stevens has shortened his rotation. In Game 3 against the Heat, only six Celtics reached double-digit minutes: the five starters plus Gordon Hayward, back from injury. In Game 4, Robert Williams III and Brad Wanamaker inched over the 10-minute mark, but the big six still combined for 88 percent of the team’s total minutes.
That means more time for a full small-ball lineup that features Boston’s five most skilled players: Hayward along with Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart. Due to injuries and a desire to keep a big man on the floor, that quintet played just 38 possessions together in the regular season and didn’t play at all together in the Celtics’ first playoff game before Hayward’s injury.
In Game 3 against Miami, Stevens finally unveiled the secret weapon; the five smalls shared the court for seven minutes, making them the Celtics’ second-most-used lineup in the game, and outscored Miami by 13 points in that span. Yet this same lineup faltered down the stretch in Game 4—not because of any trouble scoring with five players who can all pass, move, and shoot, but because of an inability to contain the Heat on the other end.
In five minutes against this group, the Heat scored 17 points to the Celtics’ 18, and though that total was inflated by free throws at the end of the game, Miami had spent the preceding minutes carving through the Celtics’ supposedly formidable unit. In Game 3, the five small Celtics forced a succession of turnovers, but in Game 4, Adebayo started by finding space in the paint and converting a comfortable hook shot. Dragic drove easily to the basket and drew a foul. Dragic went to the lane again and made a layup. Butler hit a short jumper. Nifty ball movement broke a double-team and led to a wide-open corner 3 from Dragic. And finally, Herro danced through the lane for a layup of his own, cutting to score off a Butler pass.
That’s six incursions into the paint, leading to 13 points and a bolstered Heat lead as Boston couldn’t close the gap in either the game or series. Given the limitations of Boston’s depth, Stevens will surely turn to this five-man group again in important moments in Game 5. But they have to prevent penetration better than they did in Game 4, or else even a lineup that looks strong on paper won’t help Boston come back from the brink.