2020 NBA Finals | Lakers vs. Heat

Finals Film Study: Empty corners and screen angles

The Miami Heat are still playing this late in the year because of how well they’ve played late in games. After their 111-108 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5 of The Finals on Friday, the Heat are 11-3 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes in these playoffs.

Over the 24 years for which we have play-by-play data, only one team — the 2001-02 Lakers at 13-3 — has had more *playoff wins that were within five in the last five. Only four teams have a had a better winning percentage in at least 10 clutch playoff games.

* Over those 24 years, three of the five teams with at least 10 clutch postseason wins have been versions of the Heat; the 2005-06 champs and the 2010-11 finalists were both 10-4.

The fourth quarter of Game 5 featured LeBron James on one end of the floor, Jimmy Butler on the other, and some key wrinkles in both offenses.

1. Lakers with an empty corner

The Lakers’ fourth-quarter offense included several pick-and-rolls from the left side of the floor with an empty left corner. That forced the Heat to either leave somebody open or bring help from the weak side. Midway through the fourth, James was the screen-setter and got a clean roll to the rim with no Heat defender in position to help.

A few possessions later, Danny Green set the same screen for James, flaring to the empty corner, with Tyler Herro defending the screen with a hard show and recover technique. Green’s flare got Jae Crowder to slide over from the weak side of the floor so that he could close out to Green in the left corner.

With Bam Adebayo on the baseline checking Anthony Davis, James threw a dart to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had just enough time and space to shoot from the right corner.

Caldwell-Pope corner 3

The Lakers ran a very similar action (Davis set an additional ball screen) with Caldwell-Pope and Green in opposite roles on the very next possession. Herro was able to close out to Green and force a step-back 3 that missed.

Later in the fourth, the Lakers ran two straight empty-corner pick-and-rolls with James as the ball-handler. On the first, Adebayo was drawn to the flare from the weak side, allowing Markieff Morris to crash for an offensive rebound (on which he was fouled). On the second, Adebayo left Davis to close out on Caldwell-Pope, but Herro was able to box out the Lakers big man.

2. The pre-switch

With a little less than four minutes left, Green was ready to set another ball screen for James. But rather than have Duncan Robinson defend it, Adebayo switched onto Green before the screen was set. So Green aborted the play and Markieff Morris (now being defended by Robinson) set the screen instead.

That affected the Lakers’ spacing and allowed two Miami defenders (Adebayo and Herro) to defend three Lakers on the weak side. Robinson recovered to Morris and James was left to play one-on-one against Butler, who got some help from Herro and blocked James at the basket.

Adebayo pre-switch

3. Switch and iso

James playing one-on-one wasn’t necessarily a bad option. With a little less than two minutes to go, Davis set the screen for James with an empty left corner. While Herro and Robinson have gone with the hard show and recover technique, Crowder just switched the screen. Davis cleared out, allowing James to isolate against Crowder. He got to the rim for a rather ridiculous and-one.

Crowder switch

With the Lakers down one in the final minute, Alex Caruso set a ball screen in the middle of the floor for James, who waited out Robinson and attacked Butler one-on-one. His drive collapsed the defense, and the Heat’s rotations allowed Davis to get in position to rebound Caldwell-Pope’s missed 3 and put the Lakers back ahead.

4. Flat screen frees Butler from Davis

Davis’ defense on Butler was critical to the Lakers’ win in Game 4. On Friday, Miami had some success by setting screens at different angles. With the screener’s back parallel to the baseline, it was harder for Davis to get under the screen and meet Butler on the other side.

On the Heat’s last possession of the third quarter, Crowder set such a flat screen to dislodge Davis and, with Kyle Kuzma out of position, Butler got into the paint, drew help, and dropped the ball off to Adebayo for a dunk. The possession that got Butler to the line for the game-clinching free throws was similar.

Crowder got James off of Butler with the same flat screen and Morris was similarly out of position, giving Butler a wide-open lane to the basket, where he was met with a foul from Davis.

Crowder screen for Butler

5. The possession in question

The Lakers, of course, still had one more chance. Not surprisingly, James had the ball and Robinson was put into the action, with Green setting up for a screen to get James toward the middle of the floor.

The Heat didn’t defend it well. Butler “iced” the screen (keeping James on the side), but Robinson wasn’t in position to get in front of James when he went the other way. James’ drive drew four defenders and Green was left wide open at the top of the arc.

James rejects the screen

The pass wasn’t to James’ standards. Green had to knock it down before gathering the ball and rising for his shot. One thing to note is where James took off from…

James' take-off point

He didn’t really have his feet under him as he left the ground, making that pass just a little bit tougher, which made Green’s shot not quite in-rhythm.

More Jimmy. More LeBron. What’s left in the tank?

We can certainly expect the ball to be in the hands of Butler and James again for most of Game 6 on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC). And if Davis is at all hobbled by his heel contusion, we could see even more of the Lakers’ guards setting screens, a game plan which has generally worked out well for the Lakers.

Of course, both players are coming off ridiculous efforts. Butler has averaged 45.1 minutes and 10.6 minutes of possession (while being the primary defender on James) over the last four games. James has gotten more rest and hasn’t had the ball quite as much, but he might not be able to shoot 6-for-9 from 3-point range again.

Keep an eye on the empty corners and screen angles. If it’s another game that goes down to the wire, the little things will mean a lot.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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