As talented as LeBron James and Anthony Davis are, the Miami Heat (111.9 points scored per 100 possessions, seventh in the league) had a more efficient offense than the Los Angeles Lakers (111.7, 11th) in the regular season. Against the league’s top-10 defenses, the difference was greater (109.9 vs. 107.3).
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The Heat are difficult to defend, with multiple shooters constantly moving around Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. In the conference semifinals, the Heat scored 11.1 more points per 100 possessions than the Milwaukee Bucks allowed in the first round. In the conference finals, they scored 12 more than the Boston Celtics allowed in the conference semis. Over Games 2 and 3 of The Finals (without Adebayo), the Heat scored more per 100 (120.5) than the Lakers had allowed in any two-game stretch in these playoffs.
But in Game 4, the Lakers’ defense was better than that Heat offense, which has now had two of their three least efficient postseason games in this series. Davis was a huge part of that, but the Lakers’ guards also played a part in some key stops on Tuesday.
1. Playing soft
The most common matchup in Game 4 was Jimmy Butler guarding James. The second most common matchup was Davis guarding Butler. And Davis defended Butler (who ranked last in effective field goal percentage on shots outside the paint among 190 players who attempted at least 200 in the regular season) much like Butler defended James: by going under screens.
Of course, Davis playing soft can make it tougher to defend dribble hand-offs (DHO). Midway through the third quarter, Butler sprung Duncan Robinson for a 3-pointer that Davis wasn’t in position to contest when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope went under the pick himself.
2. Hedge and recover
A couple of minutes later, Rajon Rondo went over the DHO and Davis jumped out to prevent a Robinson 3-pointer, before recovering quickly to defend Butler in the paint (with some weak-side help) …
After averaging 48 points in the paint through the first three games, the Heat had just 32 in Game 4.
3. Stopping the ATO
The game was still tight in the fourth quarter, in part because the Heat had a couple of fortunate buckets: Tyler Herro hitting a ridiculously high floater over Davis and Robinson banking in a late-clock 3-pointer. The fourth was the Heat’s most efficient period of the night. But the Lakers still got a few critical stops down the stretch.
One was an after-timeout (ATO) possession in which James and Kyle Kuzma prevented another Robinson hand-off 3-pointer, with Alex Caruso recovering out to Herro after tagging Bam Adebayo’s roll to the rim and then containing Herro’s off-the-dribble attack.
Caruso then got around a Robinson hand-off for Herro and forced a tough, pull-up jumper as the shot clock expired.
4. Caruso’s double-DHO defense
Two minutes later, Caruso switched onto Robinson, denied a hand-off, and then helped off Robinson when Rondo trailed the ensuing hand-off to Herro, forcing a travel.
The guys Caruso was defending were 1-for-6 with two turnovers in Game 4.
5. The triple-switch
With the Lakers up six with a little more than a minute to go, the Heat ran another hand-off play, where Adebayo set an initial screen for Robinson. The Lakers smoothly executed a triple-switch, where Rondo went from chasing Robinson to defending Adebayo’s roll to the rim, James went from guarding Adebayo to guarding Butler, and Davis switched off Butler to prevent Robinson from shooting.
There was a split second there where Butler could have aborted the hand-off and hit Adebayo on the roll before Rondo got back into the paint. But with it being a six-point game, the Heat were probably looking for a 3-pointer. They ended up getting another contested mid-range shot from Herro at the end of the shot clock.
Defense (still) wins championships
This is still the fourth most efficient series (both teams combined) of the 15 in these playoffs. But in Games 1 and 4, the Lakers have shown the ability to stop the Heat’s multi-faceted offense, defending the 3-point line by chasing shooters around those hand-offs, while also protecting the rim with the size and quickness of Davis and James.
The Heat had the more efficient offense this season, but the Lakers had the league’s third-ranked defense. This is the best defensive team that James has played for since he won his first championship with the Heat in 2011. If the Lakers can continue to get stops in Game 5 on Friday (9 p.m. ET, ABC), the Heat will be on the other side of his fourth.
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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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