I’m going to get right into it today, so jump in with both feet with me. Lakers vs. Heat is here, so let’s skip the formalities.
I’ve said this every series before this one and it remains true now, too. I love a game 4. This is where the series turns. After tonight, the Lakers and Heat will either be tied or the Lakers will be up 3-1 and only a game away from a championship. The stakes for this game are about as high as a non-elimination game can be. I expect both teams to be more locked in, both teams to have a certain amount of desperation.
If that is actually the case, things shift towards the Lakers. We all saw the level of commitment they had in game 3 and, honestly, in parts of game 2. There was not only a sense they believed they were better, but a sense that the Heat could not beat them. Their relative focus, want to do the necessary work, and attention to detail waned as a result.
That, of course, is not true as game 3 proved. Having evidence to back that up now is important. And, for both sides. For the Lakers, it can serve as a way to refocus. For the Heat, it’s an affirmation of preexisting belief that they belong. Both can use this as fuel to gas themselves up for this game and it should produce a good competition.
For the Lakers, though, a better mindset is nothing without adjusting to shifting terms of engagement. The Heat have adjusted their gameplan, the Lakers must adapt to those changes and make some of their own. What that means remains to be seen, but I have some thoughts…
First, the Heat are using more pistol and wide screen actions to free up their shooters and create decisions in space vs. the Lakers defense. Communication must improve on these actions because the Heat are taking advtange of the Lakers want to switch these screens to slip out of them and get free run to the rim. Clearing up those coverages is important, not only to shut down those counters, but to be in better position to gum up what the Heat are trying to do as the set advances.
Further, the Heat are now turning into hunters with their P&R game, targeting specific Lakers in order to get favorable matchups. Jimmy Butler, in particular, is singling out any non-LeBron defender as a guy he’d rather isolate against. The Lakers cannot surrender switches as easily as they did in game 3. LeBron must work to not get screened and the Lakers must start to institute shifts in their coverages to allow Bron to recover.
Beyond this, though, there’s a more basic tenet of defense the Lakers need to improve at: containing dribble penetration. In game 3, the Heat attacked off the dribble too freely. They got downhill for shots in the paint and then kicked out to shooters when the help arrived. The Lakers cannot cede these driving lanes so easily and must hold up at the point of attack much better. For all the talk about the Heat’s movement and screen game, they won game 3 on straight drives to the paint as much as any other attack.
Now, doing this work is not easy. It will require a level of physicality and attention to detail in indvidual matchups that is difficult to maintain over the course of a full game. It’s even harder to do without fouling. But, this is the challenge that must be conquered. If the Lakers give up drives, they’ll struggle to defend. Cut those down, and Miami will be ever more reliant on screens and passing players open to generate advantage. That can work, for sure, but the Lakers can better cover those things up with their length and versatility defensively.
Offensively, the Lakers must also adjust to what the Heat are doing on take them out of their flow. The paint is incredibly packed in the halfcourt and they’re tyring to deny AD touches entirely. Even when he does get a touch, they’re sending doubles early and often. The Lakers can maneuver around this type of defense by setting more screens vs. the Heat’s man defense to try to get AD moving towards the ball and into positions to score. More wide pindown actions, more cross screens, more actions where the ball flows from strong to weakside with AD coming off picks and through traffic to get to preferred spots.
And once AD does have the ball, he needs to make the right reads and understand what is required of him on any given possession. There’s a balance betwen moving quickly because there’s an opening to do so and moving more deliberately because the Heat are trying to rush to him with multiple defenders in order to force mistakes. AD is capable of making these decisions, but he must be alert and understand what’s needed in any given possession to rise above it all.
As for LeBron, I hope to see him alternate between calling for screens to be set for him and him setting them himself. The Heat’s high hedge and recover defense worked well last game and Bron never adjusted to it besides trying to split it once and a while. If he’s able to get into position where he’s setting screens both on and off the ball, he can not only open up teammates for good looks, he can force the switches he seeks when asking for screens when he’s the ball handler.
Once he gets that switch, he can work in isolation and reap the benefits that come from that (scoring chances for himself, kickout passes off penetration, or passing out of double teams that come for him in order to generate advantage on the weakside). But he too, must commit to making the extra effort offensively and not take for granted he’s just going to get what he wants by doing things only one way. The Heat are too well coached to give him the same thing every time, especially when it’s proven he can beat it. He must diversify his approach.
And then, of course, there’s transition. The Lakers need to be better at pushing the ball and looking for advantage early in the shot clock. As it’s been true all playoffs, the Lakers not only need to hunt pure transition chances, but also try to get actions on the secondary break where the Heat are not fully set and entrenched defensively.
Those early spinouts for lobs by AD, those quick drives off a closeout by KCP, those trail 3’s by Morris/Green…those all come out of early O, not a pure fastbreak. Make the Heat defend before they’re set. Make them matchup while scrambling. Make them help when the responsibilities are not clear. There’s advantage to be leveraged in these situations and the Lakers need to work for it.
Lastly, even though he’s being listed as questionable, there is a real chance that Bam Adebayo returns to the lineup this game. He is clearly an important player for the Heat and can make a huge difference for them on both sides of the ball. Even if he is not 100%, I expect him to help the Heat in a multitude of ways, including giving them even more energy and determination to win this game and belief to win this series.
That said, if Bam does play, as unique a player as he is, he brings a type of conventionality to this Heat team that could make things more straight forward for the Lakers. Not easier, mind you, but more straight forward. Bam is not a shooting threat from range and playing him in lineups that include Jimmy and/or Iguodala could lead to a more cramped floor and different help options, particularly when Olynyk is in the game as the lone big. This is just something to watch for should he return and how it impacts the Lakers defensive approach.
Winning games in the Finals requires doing the work. It means having to do the hard thing, over and over again with a level of consistency and determintion to get it right. Even in game 2 — where I thought the Lakers attentiveness was already not so great to too many stretches — they demolished the Heat zone by continuously crashing the offensive glass and moving the ball around the floor and then penetrating the middle off the drive and via passes to break down the defense. They did the work needed to win, they simply could have worked for longer to make the final margin even bigger.
In game 4, there cannot be a deceleration. There can be no let up. The Heat believe now. The Lakers must take that belief from them. The only way to do it is through a certain relentlessness and commitment to winning every possession. That doesn’t mean they will, but by playing as if it is the goal, they’ll put themselves in the best position to accomplish that.
This is the Finals, after all. And getting this win will take your best effort.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on ABC.