For the first time in his 10 Finals appearances, a LeBron James led team has a 2-0 series advantage heading into game 3. The chance, then, to put an opponent in the deepest of holes with a victory tonight surely has LeBron and the rest of the Lakers champing at the bit and ready to try to effectively end this series. The Heat, too, will see this as their last stand and will fight like hell to avoid that dreaded 3-0 deficit.
What this means for their injury situation is an unknown at this point. Will Bam Adebayo play through what’s being labeled as a “neck strain”, but is almost certainly a shoulder issue too? Will Goran Dragic try to gut it out on a ravaged foot, probably needing a pain injection to do so? The Heat found some success vs. the Lakers with their depleted lineup, but never truly threatened to win the game. They’ll need to play much better than in game 2 and, when you consider what it would take to do so if only the same group is at Erik Spoelstra’s dispoals, what that really means is putting better players on the court.
That said, the Heat should take solace in parts of their gameplan working well in game 2 and look to carry those forward, particularly offensively. They leveraged their shooting as far as they could, putting the Lakers into situations where they had to race out to contest shooters on closeouts or put two defenders at the point of attack to thwart a 3-point attempt in a handoff situation. They used the Lakers want to deny those shots against them, driving against closeouts and pocket-passing vs. aggressive hedges to get into the paint for scores or an additional kickout pass to a more open shooter.
I expect the Lakers to be more aware of this in game 3, pre-rotating earlier into the paint to disrupt the pocket bounce pass and then closing out under more control or even sending the rotation from a different spot on the floor to cover up those spot-up shooters better. The Lakers have been a crisp defensive team all playoffs in taking away 3’s and executing the rotations behind them that to force offenses into resetting rather than being able to push advantage further. Whether they can do that vs. as good a passing and quick thinking team as the Heat remains to be seen, but I do expect them to be in better position to try.
Offensively, there’s actually not much for the Lakers to change. For as irritated as I got at some of the missed 3’s vs. the Heat zone in game 2, many of those were really good shots that just didn’t fall. Yes, those are also the shots the Heat are willing to surrender, but as the old coaching axiom goes, “you can’t take everything away”. The Lakers simply need to make them pay by hitting those shots. If Green and KCP shoot anywhere close to their season averages, it will all be fine — it may be fine without it, too, but you get what I’m saying.
The Lakers also need to continue work the interior of the zone as much as possible by making passes to the nail, passes to the short corner, and by crashing the offensive glass from the baseline and shallow wing — especially if the Heat continue to play their smaller players on the bottom of the zone. If the Heat change up their zone alignment and put their smaller players at the top of the zone, the Lakers can then adjust their attack by slotting LeBron and AD even more towards the nail where their catches will be easier against the Heat guards. The counters are there, the Lakers just need to execute.
Should the Heat go more to man defense, the Lakers also understand the goals there. Hunt mismatches via ball screens and direct passes when the favorable matchup already exists. If Crowder is on AD, feed him. If Robinson or Herro or Olynyk are on the floor, use their man to set screens for LeBron to try to get a switch. Re-screen and re-screen again if necessary. If the Heat send more double teams or help, make the right read and move the ball on to an open teammate. Trust that player to make the right play too, just as you have all season.
Miami’s defensive limitations against this Lakers group are pretty clear and well established at this point. The Lakers must simply focus and target them consistently. Do not let them off the hook, do not let them settle in and feel comfortable. Play to your strengths, do it consistently, and continue to pressure the Heat to play perfect defensive possessions. No team can be perfect every possession of every game. It gets even harder when a team has LeBron James and Anthony Davis operating as the fulcrum of those sets.
Which brings me to my final point in all this. Game 3 will be decided by determination and commitment to playing hard and smart for longer than your opponent — something LeBron seems to understand. And while the Lakers can win without this, the more important point is that the Lakers cannot lose if they actually do it. The Heat, as good and as well coached and as competitive as they are, can only win if they exceed the Lakers in these areas. Do not let them.
Set the terms of the game, bring consistency in effort and smarts in the approach and walk out of this game with a 3-0 lead. Don’t and, well, see where it gets you. I’m hoping for the former. Enjoy the game, folks.
Where you can watch: 4:30pm start time on ABC.