There is no path of least resistence to an NBA Finals win. If no other lesson is learned from the Lakers game 3 performance, this is it. Rather than play hard and smart and be prepared for the different tactics the Heat would employ to try to save their chances in this series, the Lakers did….none of that. In fact, they actively played as though a few short stints of effort would save them. It did not.
Credit the Heat, here. In a game where playing harder and smarter than their more talented opponent was their only path to victory, they did just that. They punched the bigger, stronger, faster Lakers in the mouth and did it over and over again, possession after possession to gain the win. By the end of the game, the Lakers were simply going through the motions and the Heat were getting whatever they wanted.
Every defensive switch they targeted, the Lakers obliged. Every foul they sought out, the Lakers committed. Every forced jumper the Heat nudged the Lakers toward was taken as if it was (the Lakers) own original idea. The shorthanded Heat may have been the less talented team, but they were also the exponentially harder working and smarter team too. They didn’t just earn the win, they put the Lakers in a position where there really weren’t any other options for how the game should play out.
Forget what the scoreboard said, because this game was a blowout in the measurables that truly mattered towards who would end up on top: focus, intensity, togetherness, belief, execution, and, simply, playing to win.
Maybe some of this is human nature. You cannot manufacture fear. You cannot just summon desperation. The Lakers were up 2-0 and had earned one blowout win and and another 10 point victory where the Heat never seemed to threaten them even when playing so well offensively they shot 50/40/90 as a team! Note, that since the 1983-84 season, a team has only met all those thresholds 44 times in the playoffs. The game 2 Heat joined the 2017 Grizzlies and the 2018 Raptors as the only teams to lose. So, on some levels, it’s hard to blame the Lakers for thinking they simply were the better team and there was little the Heat could do to prove otherwise.
That was wrong, of course. But, in thinking about it all night and into this morning, I’m of the mind it needed to actually happen for them to believe it. I’m guessing they do now. If you’re looking for a silver linining, then, consider that two things are very likely to happen the next game irrespective of who is available for the Heat or what tactics they employ.
First, whatever malaise the Lakers suffered through on Sunday night should be over now. The Lakers have typically responded well to performances like the one they had on Sunday, coming out the next game with a renewed sense of purpose and focus. I not only expect this from Anthony Davis and LeBron James, but I expect it from all the role players as well.
Second, through the Lakers first three series these playoffs, Frank Vogel has not gone very heavy on adjustments until the team has lost a game. Regardless of opponent, the Lakers have tried to play “their game” to make other teams adjust to them for as long as possible.
Against Portland, I’d argue the team never adjusted at all, even after losing game 1 (a game in which the Lakers shot poorly but did everything else well). Against Houston, the Lakers lost game 1 again, but immediately made lineup and schematic shifts to downsize their lineups and begin showing more assertive defense at the point of attack vs. James Harden. Against the Nuggets, they waited until after losing game 3 to start Dwight Howard and to tweak some of their coverages against Jamal Murray.
Like the WCF, the Lakers made it three games again before losing in the Finals. I now expect them to start to show real changes schematically, and to adjust to some of the things the Heat have thrown at them so far. Understand, the Heat have now gone through multiple schematic shifts before finding an approach that worked for them. They played a switching man approach in game that got them nowhere. In game 2, their zone got shredded by interior passes and offensive rebounds. In game 3, they played a more aggressive man scheme by doubling both AD and LeBron, while also limiting switching.
The Lakers now have tape on all these approaches and I expect them to troubleshoot solutions to find things that can work. Maybe that means using LeBron more as a screener in order to get the switches they want from the Heat defense. Maybe it means using more of the LeBron/AD P&R to force the Heat to deal with actions involving both players. Maybe it means more lineup tweaks where AD plays a lot more C and Kuz/Morris find more minutes as different defensive options who offer more switchability on the wing.
I also think the Lakers players themselves will be more tuned into the game plan and that any increased focus will tie back into them thinking quicker and smarter on the fly to adjust to in the moment shifts the Heat are deploying. This can lead to a better understanding of attack points vs. Miami’s in-game changes and the will to execute against them.
At least, that’s the hope. Because, as we saw in game 3, you cannot simply show up and win a game at this level. The Lakers got their wakeup call, now it’s a matter of getting up and going to work instead of hitting the snooze button. They certainly cannot afford that for another night, not with the Heat eager to tie things up on Tuesday.