Here are three takeaways from L.A.’s first closeout loss of the 2020 playoffs.
The defense made too many mistakes
Miami had an offensive rating of 118.1, not even close to the level of defense the Lakers needed to play to close out this series. Early in the game, the help didn’t come, like when Tyler Herro was blitzed at the top of the key and no one recovered to Bam Adebayo at the rim. Or when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got caught ball watching and lost contact with Duncan Robinson not once, but twice — though in fairness, Alex Caruso seemingly screened him the second time around. Or when Rajon Rondo thought it prudent to close out hard on Jae Crowder (who the Lakers were willing to let fly from deep), resulting in a four-point play.
There was also LeBron James gambling to try and steal an entry pass, and Adebayo getting a dunk as a result, or when Rondo failed to box out Kendrick Nunn right in front of the basket. The point is, the Lakers were sloppy, and even if their defense was good enough in spurts, it wasn’t consistent enough to get the job done.
The main mistake the Lakers made, though, was a recurring issue: They kept switching Davis off of Butler. Admittedly, Davis was a little gimpy after aggravating his right heel contusion, but he made some incredible defensive plays late in the game regardless, and Butler was reluctant to attack him in isolation beyond settling for long jumpers. Butler was too comfortable taking on Markieff Morris on the switches, yet that was a matchup the Lakers willingly conceded. If Davis wasn’t up for the job, Frank Vogel should have put James on Butler instead of letting Butler get his preferred outcome so frequently.
LeBron James is still an unbelievable force of a nature
James has been outstanding in closeout games thus far this postseason (and dating back to his last four years in Cleveland), and he once again delivered, seemingly the only Laker comfortable with the pressure of the moment. He averaged 34.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per game while shooting 42.1% from 3-point range in the three Game 5s the Lakers played before this one. Friday, James elevated on that effort and had 40 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, and made 6-of-9 threes.
James is now the oldest player to score 40 points in an NBA Finals game, passing Michael Jordan. He recorded 40 points and 10 rebounds for the fifth time in the Finals, tying Shaquille O’Neal for the most ever such games. Think about the level of versatility James has in his game that he simultaneously tracked down those two legends in the record books on the same night.
The Lakers relied on James for everything on offense in Game 5. Their halfcourt attack was bogged down early, and James hit deep three after deep three to keep the Lakers in contact. Seriously, look at how far James is from the 3-point line on some of these attempts, and they all come when the deficits were at their largest.
He pushed the pace and got the Lakers going in transition with pinpoint outlet passes, leading to a 25-4 advantage in fast-break points. He barreled his way to the basket repeatedly, shooting 7-of-9 in the restricted area. With the Lakers needing spacing and unable to play to a suddenly ineffective Rondo at the end of the game, he ran the offense every single time down, calling for high screens, hunting mismatches, absorbing, and making the right plays.
It’s a shame for many reasons that the Lakers lost, but chief among them is that James put together an absolute masterpiece, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. It was a tour de force performance, one that should have been rewarded with not one, but two trophies at the end of the game. Instead, James was left with his hands up on the team’s final possession, waiting for a pass that didn’t come.
The bench let the Lakers down.
The L.A. bench has been a real strength in this series. Not only do the Lakers have more depth than the Heat (in part due to the loss of Goran Dragic), but their players have been more impactful. That was not the case in Game 5.
Kuzma was 3-of-10 and missed all of this threes, even though they all came from the corner. He did a decent job defending Butler in the first half, using his chest to body Butler, but Kuzma made two key errors that haunted the Lakers in a game they lost by three. He gave Butler too much space to shoot when the shot clock was winding down at the end of the first half and then ran into Robinson for a four-point play as the third quarter came to a close.
Rondo had wild swings throughout the game, alternately putting pressure on the Miami defense with his drives to the basket — though he only made one lay-up, and the misses were a green light for the Heat to run — and then settling for unconscionable step-back threes. His ability to get the Lakers in early offense was key as well, but his defense reverted to regular season form, otherwise known as ball-watching and dying on screens.
Finally, Morris was a real downer for the Lakers. His spacing is generally a real threat, but he seemingly lost confidence in his jumper, only attempting two threes all night. Morris most notably didn’t take what could have been the final shot of the game, instead attempting to pass to Davis in the paint and turning the ball over to essentially end the game. He was roasted repeatedly by Butler, due mostly to scheme, but he still didn’t do anything to stop the Miami wing.
The Lakers wasted good games from Kuzma and Morris in Game 3 as the superstars fell short in that loss. This time, they wasted a transcendent performance from James and a heroic effort from Davis to battle through his injury, which could very well get worse by the next time the team suits up. The Lakers can’t afford any more slippage; they’ll need everyone to be on the same page in Game 6 in their second attempt to close out this series if they want to avoid a Game 7.