Five things we learned from the Miami Heat’s 111-108 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5 of the 2020 Finals Friday in the Orlando bubble:
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1. Green wasn’t ready for his close-up
Considering what similar moments meant to them, their teams’ fans and their post-playing careers, John Paxson and Steve Kerr probably would shudder if asked to imagine themselves missing the shots they’re most famous for having made.
For Kerr, no journey through broadcasting, general managing and coaching, no five straight Finals trips and three titles with Golden State? For Paxson, no longtime job, secure through ups and downs, running the Chicago Bulls?
Both those guys made clutch shots after the NBA’s reigning superstar gave up the ball in critical waning minutes of Finals clinchers, Paxson in 1993 vs. Phoenix and Kerr in 1997 vs. Utah. They became household names for their clutch ability and part of Michael Jordan’s legacy (in the learning-to-trust-teammates category).
> Finals Game 6: Lakers vs. Heat, Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC
Danny Green, however, missed his shot Friday night.
Green, with two rings to his credit already (San Antonio in 2014, Toronto in 2019), had the chance at a third right in his hands. LeBron James’ pass — the correct play with three Miami defenders collapsing on James deep along the right side — found Green open out front just behind the 3-point line. He launched with 7.1 seconds left and his team down 109-108, on the brink of entering Lakers lore, only to have the ball kick off the rim.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t want James, who is entirely capable, making some ridiculous, heart-wrenching baseline prayer to win it. He also knows James and his instincts to do the right thing in those moments. No way a guy with one eye on Jordan most of his career is going to pass up any opportunities to check that box, too.
Green is said to be bothered by an aching hip. That might explain why he’s been ordinary from the arc in these playoffs (33.3%) and worse in the Finals (25.8%, 8 of 31). But he got called out on it anyway, notably on Instagram by L.A. fan Snoop Dogg.
Others took to social media to question James’ decision to put the ball in Green’s hands.
I ain’t Bron lmao. But I’m always going out shooting 🤣. The right play in my mind is the fade away , especially when I got 40. There’s a reason why all players aren’t paid equally lol. Some people get paid to make those plays and live with them. Others hoping they dnt have to https://t.co/nsH829TI4D
— CJ McCollum (@CJMcCollum) October 10, 2020
Someone even dredged up in the postgame media session James’ pass to an open Donyell Marshall late in Game 1 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals against Detroit. Marshall’s shot missed, too (though the greater question might be, how old is James really? Donyell Marshall as a teammate?)
It was wasted inquiry. James made the right play. The Lakers and Green just got the wrong result.
“We got a hell of a look to win the game, to win the series,” James said. “Didn’t go down. And then we got the offensive rebound, we turned the ball over.”
Why yes, let’s not forget that Markieff Morris proved he’s no Chris Bosh when it comes to claiming a late-game rebound and making the right decision.
The Lakers’ backup forward had time and legit options — over to LeBron on the right wing, turning around and handing the ball to Green for a reset — when he chose to float a goofy pass toward the basket. It went over Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo to some place where Davis wasn’t going to be.
I can’t get over how wide open LeBron James was for a jumper to win the NBA Finals. pic.twitter.com/LZ7WJHt7iw
— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) October 10, 2020
From the other side, Miami’s Jae Crowder shot 4-of-13, including 2-of-9 on 3s. A couple more makes and Green’s miss never would have mattered or happened. As it is, the veteran guard has one, maybe two, more games to alter the trajectory of the rest of his life!
OK, well, Green still can make people forget the miss over time, as long as the Lakers prevail.
2. Close-out LeBron vs. Fend-off Jimmy was overdue
The way James and Miami’s Jimmy Butler went at it in Game 5 overall but particularly down the stretch, with its seven lead changes in the final three-plus minutes, was reminiscent of some old-school NBA. Like Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins back in the ‘80s.
At one point as they and their teams traded haymakers, ABC’s Mark Jackson pulled out the prizefight imagery, likening the action to a back-and-forth Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier brawl.
Butler finished with 35 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists and five steals. He is averaging 29 points, 8.6 board, 10.2 assists and 2.6 steals, while shooting 56% from the field. James? Pretty much the same: 30.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 58% shooting.
What we were treated to Friday was a glimpse of a like-minded assassin James might have found in Kobe Bryant if their careers had been more in sync. Alas, timing prevented what the NBA surely would have loved, to pit those two legendary Jordan chasers against each other two, three or more times in The Finals.
It didn’t even happen once. James wasn’t in the league yet when Bryant went to and won his first three Finals. He had wrapped up his rookie season when the Lakers went again in 2004. James got here for the first time in 2007, then Bryant led the Lakers to the next three. And that was it for him, as James began his stretch of eight consecutive trips.
The foes James and his teams did face were mostly excellent — the Spurs, Mavs, Thunder, Spurs, Spurs, Warriors, Warriors, Warrior and Warriors — but didn’t quite match up the way he and this version of Butler have.
San Antonio’s core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili didn’t engage directly with James. Dirk Nowitzki played a different position. Kevin Durant was a relative pup, sharing OKC’s load with Russell Westbrook. The Warriors had numbers to throw at James, with that version of Durant a little better matched.
But James’ Miami and Cleveland Finals were more about the Big Three he gathered around him. And this postseason, James has had more help from Anthony Davis than Hasselhoff got from K.I.T.T.
That changed due to Davis’ sore right heel Friday, which had the Lakers’ big man leaving space down the stretch for some vintage, weight-bearing LeBron. Butler was there to meet him, eye to eye for a night, for a little what-might-have-been.
Jordan never had that foil on equal footing that helps define many careers. Bryant largely did not, either, beyond some snarling with Paul Pierce. It’s like Tiger Woods or Serena Williams, making a little less sound when only one hand is clapping.
No one is suggesting that Butler is on James’ level, yet or ever. But there were two hands clapping hard in this one.
3. Robinson will be the Lakers’ movie star
Duncan Robinson had been kept in check for the first four games, shooting 8-of-26 on 3-pointers and averaging 9.8 points. But the Miami sniper got free often enough Friday to score 26 points while making seven of his 13 shots from deep.
Unassuming in appearance, Robinson demonstrated the game-changing range and release that makes him valuable as a decoy even on nights defenders stick close. That’s what the Lakers figure to do after film study for Sunday (ABC, 7:30 p.m. ET), without exception if they can manage it. It might not thwart Butler’s attacks and mid-range effectiveness, but it could choke off a primary outlet for the Miami All-Star’s draw-and-kicks.
Robinson reached elite status in Game 5 — only Steph Curry and Ray Allen have ever made more than seven 3-pointers in a Finals game. A more obscure achievement? His were the most ever by an undrafted player, swiping Gary Neal’s claim to fame from his big Game 3 in the 2013 Finals for San Antonio. Neal went 6-of-10 from the arc, scoring 24 points against James’ Miami squad that night.
Granted, Neal shot 5-of-18 from the arc in Games 5, 6 and 7 of that series, which the Spurs lost (you may recall Allen’s corner 3 in Game 6). It earned him a two-year contract in free agency from Milwaukee worth $6.5 million. He and his opportunities for dramatics were done; Neal played in just four more postseason games and washed swiftly through Milwaukee, Charlotte, Washington and Atlanta on his way out of the league in 2017.
Robinson’s future is looking a little more stable in south Florida.
4. Don’t take Davis’ health for granted
Davis was optimistic late Friday, vowing that his sore heel won’t stop him from participating and thriving in Game 5. He visibly was hobbled down the stretch Friday, though he finished with 28 points and 12 boards and had a critical put-back that had L.A. in front briefly, 108-107.
The more lingering image, however, was Davis testing his foot, then going down beyond the baseline while grabbing and wincing. As the game ground to a halt, there was a shot of James walking toward his bench, raising his eyebrows. This wasn’t the first time he and the other Lakers have had to hold their breaths, anticipating something worse.
One of these times, they might get it.
“He’s a warrior, man,” James said. “Being out there hobbled, it brings a lot more confidence to myself and our team. We know the nicks, bumps and bruises he’s played through throughout the whole season.”
More like his whole career. Five times in Davis’ eight NBA seasons, he missed between 14 and 26 games. Meanwhile, his false alarms have numbered in the dozens, as defined by on-court grimacing and in-game trips back to the trainer’s room.
He played in 62 of the Lakers’ 71 regular-season games in 2019-20. But there’s always the prospect of an ankle here or a heel there that might cost him a handful of games at the worst possible time.
Something that could sideline him for only one or two now could be disastrous for him and the others.
5. The bubble will end the way the bubble ends
There were confetti machines in place late in Game 5, poised for a Lakers victory. It brought to mind not just the yellow rope laid out prematurely in Miami in 2013, anticipating a Spurs title there, but also the balloons old-time Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had suspended in the Forum rafters for Game 7 of the 1969 Finals.
That party-prep was seen by Lakers HOF guard Jerry West, a notorious fretter, as hubris, and Bill Russell and the Celtics saw it the same way. They made those balloons unnecessary when Don Nelson’s jump shot bounced high off the back of the rim, then dropped through to clinch Boston’s victory.
That remains one of the great championship climaxes in NBA history. What played out at AdventHealth Arena Friday would have qualified too, if only it had decided the series. But there’s no telling how exciting or not Game 6 and a possible Game 7 might be.
A classic nail-biter would be the best possible way for this bubble finally to burst. The talent and stakes are there for it, though the basketball gods remain in charge.
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