Coup’s Takeaways: HEAT Fall In Final Minutes To Shorthanded Lakers

1. Even on the road, facing a 16-21 Lakers team without their two best players in LeBron James and Anthony Davis has all the makings of a blue-collar, show up, do the work and clock out sort of evening. You aren’t going to prove anything in a game like this. Nobody is going to remember it. You just need to grab the victory when it’s there in front of you.

This one did not begin like that sort of game. Missing threes and turning the ball over as they struggled in stretches against Los Angeles’ zone defense – which they’ve struggled against this season in limited looks – Miami began without any of the verve and connectivity they showed in possibly their best first-half of the season Monday night against the Clippers. Despite the HEAT routinely sagging off Russell Westbrook and keeping an extra body in the paint, the Lakers were finding more than enough offense – granted, with a pair of Westbrook threes – both beyond the arc and around the rim. The offense was simply disjointed and cold, though it picked up at the end of the second quarter to save the half, turning what was a 13-point deficit into merely a 52-48 disadvantage. A poor half, to be sure, but hardly a deep hole in part because of the Lakers’ 12 first-half turnovers.

Smoother sledding after that, for a time. A quick eight points from Jimmy Butler going at Patrick Beverley got things in motion, and though the Lakers kept hitting back with some scrappy offense to keep it tight, the HEAT were playing like they were the more talented group, consistently getting better opportunities while maintaining their defensive shell. Lakers led by one going into the fourth, but that lead was by their fingernails.

Those were some strong fingernails. Their attack remained scrappy throughout – with strong play from Thomas Bryant, with 21 points on 11 shots, as a finisher – but the Lakers led by five with 3:11 to play, another clutch contest, playing off all of Miami’s many misses. The HEAT had to get just as scrappy, and trailed by three with 40 seconds to play. Then Victor Oladipo missed a free-throw and Dennis Schroeder, consistently getting downhill down the stretch, drove in to put the Lakers up four with 20 to go. Miami tried to make it a free-throw game from there, but a perfect sideline pass from Austin Reaves gave Westbrook a quick two and Miami fell, 112-109, even as Butler had a good opportunity to tie it at the buzzer. The HEAT may have had the talent advantage, but the Lakers made it work with what they had.

2. When Anthony Davis is off the floor, the Lakers allow 114.7 points per 100 possessions – a number that would rank in the Bottom 5 in the league for the season. Tonight, Miami scored 111.2 per 100, despite 17 Lakers turnovers and nine steals leading to 14 more field-goal attempts, and shot 8-of-29 from three. You’re going to have cold nights, especially on the road. It happens. What’s been interesting about some of the HEAT’s recent offensive success has been how little they’ve needed those nitro nights from the arc to get them going. The offense has clearly re-centered on Butler chasing mismatches, Tyler Herro running pick-and-roll and Bam Adebayo working with the ball at the elbows and in the upper paint over the past calendar year. All three players have had good years, though not always all at the same time, as Adebayo – the saving grace over the full 48 on that end – and Butler combined for 57 while Herro scored just nine points on 14 shots.

It has all had the feel of an offense that is building toward something built more for the postseason, and that’s not just spinning the struggle on that side of the ball. Miami’s threes fell off against great defenses last year, and the HEAT want to have more to rely on. But over the course of the regular season, it also means you have a bit less of a ball movement foundation to rely on when you just need to get the gears turning. So in a game like tonight when the shots weren’t falling, the rest of the attack just looked a little sluggish, a little stuck in the mud, and with the Lakers playing hard to their credit Miami just didn’t have much recourse for greasing the wheels. It’s all building toward something more down the road, at least in theory, but in the end if you keep playing close games down the stretch those games will catch up to you sooner than later.

3. In many ways this was as simple and uncomplicated a defensive scheme the HEAT have used all season. Sure there was plenty of zone mixed in an usual, but they knew what they wanted to do with Russell Westbrook on the floor and executed it with consistency, if not always as sharply as they usually will. If Westbrook was off the ball – and this wasn’t exclusive to Westbrook as the Lakers aren’t replete with shooting threats, it was only most noticeable with Westbrook – his defender simply collapsed into the paint to provide another barrier for any drive. That offered a clear and easy passing lane for said driver, but on the pass nobody would close to Westbrook. He either shot it (2-of-6 from three) or the possession stalled.

And when Westbrook had the ball, Miami would go under screens, or they would switch, or they would just give him plenty of space to shoot should he want it. Standard stuff when you aren’t worried about someone shooting off the dribble. It was off the ball where Miami showed their hand even more, bringing over their big defender to strong-side zone at the block while shading a third defender over from the weak side. Westbrook scored with some brute force drives (21 points on 18 shots), but it was all working for three quarters as the Lakers struggled from the perimeter and hovered around an Offensive Rating of 105. But down the stretch it was the Lakers catching fire from three that pushed them to 33 fourth-quarter points, it was Westbrook and especially Schroeder (32 points on 15 shots) working their way into the paint and either finding Bryant against a switch or getting right to the cup themselves. Miami clearly knew who they were playing tonight and played the Lakers like a team that struggles to shoot (8-of-27 from three). The Lakers, somehow, still found a way to break through the blockade when they needed to, scoring on 11 of their last 12 possessions.