Five things we learned from the Los Angeles Lakers' 102-96 win against the Miami Heat in Game 4 of the 2020 Finals Tuesday in the Orlando bubble:
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1. 'Finals DPOY' for Davis?
Anthony Davis’ clunker performance in Game 3 (he got outscored and outrebounded by Miami backup center Kelly Olynyk) and LeBron James’ excellence, impact and, yes, “narrative” make it highly unlikely the Lakers’ All-Star big man can claim the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award while he’s earning his first NBA championship ring.
But that’s OK, because Davis is doing enough to win the imaginary Russell Defensive Player of the Finals trophy.
Davis’ work in guarding and ostensibly holding down Jimmy Butler Tuesday may prove to be the pivot point for the series. On Sunday, Butler looked like one of the best players on the planet with his 40-point triple-double in the Heat’s feisty victory to keep the series interesting.
Forty-eight hours later, though, Davis was unmasking that one-game superhero and returning Butler to mere star status, with 22 points, 10 boards and nine assists not enough for Miami. LeBron James scored 20 in the second half, Davis added 14 and Butler had just nine as L.A. won the last two quarters.
“We feel like we got bullied,” Davis said of Game 3. “We feel like we got outworked. ... We saw it on film. They were doing whatever they wanted, especially Jimmy. I just wanted to take all that away and just make it difficult for him.”
Said James: “That guy can do everything defensively. Guarding the ball, guard the post, slide his feet with guards, contest, can body up with bigs. I mean, need I say more?”
Davis isn’t ready for the “1-through-5” label Miami coach Erik Spoelstra hung on the more versatile James in their four years together. Few coaches, including Spoelstra or the Lakers’ Frank Vogel, would risk a steady diet of Davis on guards. But given Butler’s turf is the mid-range and his game isn’t built on elusiveness, Davis and his four inches of height and length advantage was an asset worth flexing.
Davis grabbed nine rebounds and blocked four shots, three of them in the fourth quarter, which meant he held down Butler without abandoning rim protection. Butler was essentially dared to shoot from 3-point range, and missed his three attempts.
Even though there’s no official defensive award in the playoffs or Finals, Davis made sure this Butler does not do it.
2. KCP isn’t just Klutch, he’s clutch
More than a few irritated Lakers fans have wondered over the past two seasons if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was kept around -- to the point of not being shipped to New Orleans in the 2019 Davis trade -- mostly because he uses the same agents at Klutch Sports as James and Davis.
For NBA fans less emotionally involved, Caldwell-Pope may have been little more than a contender for the league’s longest name, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
But the 27-year-old native of Georgia has been valuable through this playoff run and was particularly vital in Game 4. He scored 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting, hitting three from the arc and chipping in five assists.
His worth often doesn’t jump off the stats sheet, not when he’s shooting 28.6% on 3-pointers and 34.1% overall in The Finals. But the shots he makes and when he makes them argue pretty persuasively that Caldwell-Pope has been indispensable so far.
He’s a bargain, too, considering his salary has ticked down the past three years from $17 million in 2017-18 to $12 million in 2018-19 to $8 million this season. And he has been assigned defensively to some of the other guys’ most potent scorers.
“First of all, I just want to just thank God for me just being in this position,” Caldwell-Pope said. “But yeah, it means a lot that my teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end, and also make shots on the offensive end.”
The 6-foot-5 guard and former No. 8 pick in the 2013 draft scored 10 points in the first quarter Tuesday. But his biggest impact came much later.
After Butler missed a corner 3-pointer with the Heat down 90-88 and three minutes left, James pushed the ball up court. He found Caldwell-Pope, who had raced to the right corner and sank a 3-pointer to increase L.A.'s lead. After a Miami turnover, Caldwell-Pope's driving layup past Duncan Robinson made it 95-88 heading into the last two minutes.
“Big guts to take the shots that he took,” Vogel said, “and it was a huge five points.”
Said Caldwell-Pope on his in/out pattern of contributing: “You're not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow. Drive, get a foul, go to the free-throw line and try to get a rhythm there, or just play the game. Make plays. Do other things.”
3. Heat missing a 3 ingredient
And that’s a key ingredient in whether they prevail or even extend these Finals.
Miami’s offense looked stagnant in Game 4 compared to how it had played for most of the postseason. A team that moves and cuts lapsed into a lot of isolation. Some of that seemed due to Butler as he searched for his proper line in this game -- scorer? creator? -- and some of it undoubtedly points back to point guard Goran Dragic’s unavailability from the torn plantar fascia in his left foot.
But we’d be trying too hard for insider insight if we ignored the elephant in this particular gym. The Heat are getting beat in an area where they excelled this season. After ranking sixth in 3-pointers made in the regular season -- nearly 200 more than the Lakers, 979-782 -- they have made 14 fewer, 59-45, through four games in The Finals.
Even after folks looked cross-eyed at the Lakers for their uncharacteristic number of attempts, it turns out they have been a tad more accurate (35.5% vs. 35.2%), too.
That’s a difference of 42 points from the arc, in a series where the teams are separated by 23, 446-423. Credit the Lakers’ revived defense for their diligent and energetic contesting out to the arc.
A ray of hope for the Heat? They took seven 3-pointers in the final quarter of Game 4 and made five. They need to hope that carries over more than the 6-for-25 they shot in the first three quarters.
4. The power of texting
Real life beats Hollywood in almost every way when it comes to sports, from dramatic moments to improbable outcomes. But we’re sticking with the scripted stuff in one category, after hearing about LeBron’s allegedly inspiring, uh, text message in the hours before Game 4.
Turns out the Lakers’ all-timer woke up from his usual pregame nap thinking about what was at stake Tuesday: either a dominant 3-1 lead in the series that offers his fourth championship ring, or a 2-2 reset against an opponent gaining confidence. Easy choice.
So James texted his afternoon thought to his teammates, a post-nap message that told them he considered the evening’s work to be “must win.”
And win they did, in spite of a lackluster first half that ended when James didn’t bother to push the ball in the final 3.1 seconds.
This is another area where new technology might not scratch the old itches. There’s little satisfaction in hanging up on somebody when we can’t slam our smartphones down, and there’s not much drama in an afternoon text compared to inspirational sports speeches of yore.
Imagine Norman Dale as Gene Hackman trying to get his “Hoosiers” fired up by pecking in a couple hundred characters on a flip phone. Would Al Pacino’s “inches" speech at halftime from "Any Given Sunday" play as well if he posted that on Instagram? Of course not. And there’s no way a glowing screen in the palm of one’s hand could do justice to Knute Rockne's famous "win one for the Gipper" speech from All American.
Besides, any Laker who didn’t grasp the opportunity at hand Wednesday probably is named Earl Smith III.
5. No Dragic is a drag
Nothing captures the predicament in which Miami finds itself than this bit of video from the pregame period, when point guard Goran Dragic realized and ‘fessed up that, no, his aching left foot would not allow him to compete.
Goran is a warrior. He’s clearly trying as much as he can to play. pic.twitter.com/HKezEM3k2K— Will Manso (@WillManso) October 6, 2020
Getting Adebayo back with nary a sign of his neck and shoulder strain was a boost to the Heat both on the court and emotionally. The tenacious defender and welcome scorer had 15 points and seven rebounds, finishing as a plus-3 in 33 minutes.
But Dragic, whose plantar fasciitis always was the greater concern, seemed especially missed from Game 4. Kendrick Nunn, who had stepped in previously and for most of the season, came off the bench to shoot 2-for-11. Tyler Herro continues to write “youngest ever to…” Finals history. But if you’re starting him, you’re losing his impact as a reserve.
And even beyond Dragic’s scoring contributions, his orchestration and pace in running Miami’s attack has been absent at the worst possible time.
That doesn’t even address his individual plight. When the Heat beat Boston in the East finals, it was clear from Spoelstra’s comments about Dragic -- acquired in the same summer of 2014 in which James left to return to Cleveland -- how much the coach and the organization appreciated the veteran's loyalty and work.
That his taste of The Finals might end after 15 minutes in Game 1, with a painful and series-wiping foot injury, seems -- in the context of sports -- almost cruel.
Here’s to healing with an extra day before Game 5.
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