Through the first six and a half minutes of Game 1 of The Finals, the Miami Heat had scored 23 points on just 12 offensive possessions, building a 13-point lead. And then the offense stopped and Game 1 finished as the Heat’s least efficient performance of the postseason (98 points on 97 possessions).
The big change after those first 12 possessions was with the Lakers’ bigs. L.A. coach Frank Vogel called timeout, took Dwight Howard off the floor, and moved Anthony Davis to center.
The Lakers have generally been better defensively with Davis at center than they have with him at power forward, and that was the case on Wednesday. With Davis and Dwight Howard on the floor together, the Lakers allowed 36 points on 28 Miami possessions (1.29 per). With Davis on the floor without Howard (JaVale McGee did not play), they allowed just 35 points on 49 Miami possessions (0.71 per).
1. No help for the ice
The Heat’s first score came when Goran Dragic rejected a Bam Adebayo screen, beat Howard off the dribble, drew help from Davis, and fed Jae Crowder in the corner. Later in the first, Adebayo set a screen for Jimmy Butler early in the clock. LeBron James “iced” the screen (which means to force the ball-handler toward the sideline) and kept Butler from getting to the middle of the floor. However, Howard was not in position to stop Butler’s drive when he went the other way. Butler was able to get to the baseline and pass back to Adebayo on the roll.
2. Davis on the chase
Crowder doesn’t move and run off screens like Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. But he does take some hand-offs and makes Davis chase more when he’s playing the four than when he’s playing the five. His natural inclination to help in the paint allowed Crowder to get open for a 3 early in the third quarter.
Crowder was 3-for-5 from 3-point range in 11.4 minutes with Howard on the floor, but had just two attempts in 13.2 minutes with Howard off the floor in Game 1.
3. Quicker from 1-5
There’s an advantage to being bigger, but moving Davis to center allows the Lakers to remain relatively big while adding quickness. Late in the first quarter, Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma both went to the ball when Herro set a screen for Dragic and then popped to the left wing. But James quickly rotated off the corner, Davis was in position to protect the rim against Herro’s drive, and then he recovered to block Derrick Jones Jr.’s shot.
Midway through the second quarter, James forced a turnover when he helped on another Herro drive and then quickly recovered out to Crowder in the corner.
4. Especially at 5
James has an unprecedented combination of size, speed and instincts on the defensive end of the floor. And with his mix of length and athleticism, Davis is another defensive unicorn, one who can guard two guys at once. Here, he’s able to stay attached to Adebayo while keeping Herro from getting to the basket, which allows Caruso to get back into the play and contest Herro’s shot.
5. Rim protection above everything else
Two possessions later, Davis drops back on another Adebayo hand-off, this one to Dragic. He keeps both guys from getting to the basket and swats Dragic’s shot.
Time to start small?
Through the conference finals, the Lakers were slightly better with Davis at power forward (+12.9 points per 100 possessions) than they were with him at center (+11.7). But every series is different. The Heat aren’t quite the Houston Rockets, but with all their player movement and hand-off actions, defending them requires a certain level of quickness at every position.
So playing Davis at the five is probably a better solution in this series.
That doesn’t mean that Howard or McGee shouldn’t play, but they may be more useful on the offensive end of the floor. And if Kelly Olynyk starts in place of Adebayo (listed as doubtful with a neck strain) in Game 2 on Friday (9 p.m. ET, ABC), starting small to better defend the perimeter may be the move for the Lakers. Dragic (torn plantar fascia in his left foot) is also listed as doubtful, but it was Howard being out of position again that allowed Kendrick Nunn to score his first two of 18 points in the second half Game 1.
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John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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