The Lakers survived a highly-stressful affair to win Game 4 of the NBA Finals over the Miami Heat, 102-96. Here are three takeaways from the victory that put the Lakers one win away from a 17th championship.
Anthony Davis erased Jimmy Butler from the second half of this game
The Heat continued their fronting strategy from Game 3 that gave Davis and the Lakers so much difficulty, denying entry passes and bringing hard doubles to Davis whenever he got the ball in an attack position in the post. Those tactics limited Davis to 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting. The Lakers involved him more on pick-and-rolls even if Davis himself couldn’t finish possessions, but it wasn’t the type of dominant offensive performance we’ve grown accustomed to from Davis, especially during this postseason.
On the other end of the floor, dominance doesn’t even begin to describe Davis’ effort.
The Lakers started the game by putting Davis on Jimmy Butler, a logical decision to use their best perimeter defender to guard the hub of Miami’s offense. Butler was pretty comfortable early, but that’s because Davis kept getting switched off of him. One on possession, Butler drove at Dwight Howard; he got Kyle Kuzma on two other switches, and then Rajon Rondo didn’t show high enough on another ball screen.
After those 11 points in the first quarter, Butler was limited to 11 the rest of the game. The Lakers made an adjustment to go under on pick-and-rolls with Butler, trusting their perimeter defenders to stay glued to the shooters who were setting the screens. That gave Butler some daylight to shoot jumpers, but that isn’t his game; Davis was still able to close out hard when Butler did launch from deep thanks to his length.
And when Butler chose to attack the basket, Davis was able to match him stride for stride and contest him at the rim.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, Butler only had three open shots after the first quarter (that corner three in the fourth quarter looms large), and he shot 1-of-7 when Davis was his primary defender.
Davis’ impact on defense wasn’t just limited to Butler. Davis occasionally moved over to Bam Adebayo and stood strong on a couple post-ups. He had four blocks and a steal, and that doesn’t account for his general presence in the half court. It felt like Davis was everywhere rotating on the perimeter, helping at the rim, and simply forcing passes because the Heat didn’t like the looks they were getting against him. Miami had four shot clock violations in this game, and all of them came with Davis on the court. His defensive rating for the game was 92.5, the best of any Laker other than Howard.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope really is a manna from heaven
Caldwell-Pope was the third-leading scorer for the Lakers with 15 points in Game 4. His last five points were critical. He hit arguably the biggest shot of the game, a corner three in semi-transition to put the Lakers up five after Butler missed a three on the other end that would have given the Heat the lead. He followed that up with a hard drive to the hoop from the top of the key, finishing over Duncan Robinson to all but ice the game with two minutes to play.
What’s strange is that Caldwell-Pope had a 36-minute gap between his 10th and 11th points, but his fingerprints were still all over the game. He was attached to Robinson on defense, preventing the Miami sharpshooter from getting any air space off of screens or hand-offs. He even brought out an unexpected skill: his playmaking.
KCP nominally starts at point guard in that he is the smallest player on the court, but nothing about his game feels like a typical floor general. He’s always running off screens and playing off the ball. The most he ever does with the ball in his hands is a straight-line drive. But KCP was tied for second on the team with five assists Tuesday, and he went deep in his bag for some of these passes.
He took a pitch from Davis to start the game and flipped a pass over his head to his rolling big man. He fooled the defense on his patented baseline drive by throwing to a trailing Davis at the top of the key instead of to a shooter on the wing to put the Lakers up 71-64, their largest lead of the second half to that point. KCP had another drive from above the break that led to a Davis dunk. He even had a laser feed into the paint off a shot fake that wasn’t credited as an assist but still resulted in two LeBron James free throws.
As former teammate Josh Hart noted, everyone’s favorite Lakers punching bag came through on the biggest stage.
People were killing KCP last year...need to be thanking him with how he played this series— Josh Hart (@joshhart) October 7, 2020
If the nickname Kentavious Caldwell-Playmaker hasn’t yet stuck, it should.
The Lakers controlled the glass.
This was a slow game. There were only 90 possessions; most games are well over 100. The Lakers couldn’t get out in transition, so they were forced to score in the halfcourt, which has been a challenge for the team all season. It remained a challenge in Game 4, as the Lakers only scored 89.0 points per 100 possessions in their halfcourt offense, below the postseason league average of 98.4, per Cleaning the Glass. The only saving grace for the Lakers was that though they couldn’t score on their first opportunity very often, they created a lot of second chances.
The Lakers had 10 offensive rebounds, which represented 30% of their misses in the halfcourt, a staggering offensive rebound rate. Almost one out of three times that Heat thought they had gotten a stop, the Lakers got another crack at it. The L.A. guards are opportunistic on the offensive glass, as Rondo and Alex Caruso each snagged two offensive boards, but five other players created a second-chance for the Lakers, leading to 12 additional points. In a game that L.A. only won by six, their five-point advantage in second-chance points was meaningful.
The rebounding margin actually titled in Miami’s favor in the second half when the Lakers removed Howard from the rotation. The Lakers will have to be mindful of their box outs if they continue to go small moving forward in this series.
The Lakers took their foot off the gas in Game 3 and rightfully suffered the consequences. They brought the energy Tuesday, and they’ll need to do it one more time to close out the Heat and raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy.