It’s often said that when pressure is at its highest, at its most overwhelming, a person will revert to who they naturally are. There is no room for faking it in these moments, there are only instincts and you acting on them. There’s no deciding what you’re going to be, there’s only doing what comes natural.
Heading into the 2nd half of game 4 between the Lakers and the Heat, the Lakers held as narrow a 2 point lead imaginable. They were coming off a game 3 loss and the Heat, in this pivotal game 4, were giving them all they could handle. The next 24 minutes would determine whether they’d have a strangle-hold on the NBA Finals in the form of a 3-1 lead or whether the series would come down to a best of 3 series with the Heat having grabbed momentum.
And, in this highest of pressure situations, the Lakers reverted to what they naturally are. They got defensive.
I don’t really care what the metrics say here, either. I know the Lakers had a higher defensive rating in the 2nd half than they did in the first half. I know that the Heat scored more points and shot a (slightly) higher percentage on their field goals in the 2nd half vs. the 1st half. All of this is right there in the various boxscores you can find at the NBA stats site. Again, I do not care.
I watched the game. And I rewatched the tape today. I know what I saw, I know how difficult it was for the Heat to score those baskets and how active the Lakers defense was in fighting for every piece of real estate the Heat were trying to take as their own.
I saw how Anthony Davis fought to get under ball screens vs. Jimmy Butler and then how he hustled to recover back to him in order to not allow him the space to drive the paint and get into positions where he was more comfortable shooting. I also saw how AD defended the Heat’s dribble handoff actions, jumping out onto shooters to deny them shots and then recovering back to Jimmy to ensure an easy basket wasn’t given up.
I saw how KCP and Alex Caruso chased and chased and chased Duncan Robinso and Tyler Herro all over the floor to deny them touches and clean shots at the basket. Shots they only need a milisecond to get off their fingertips. How they fought over and around screens, how they communicated to switch when they needed to, and how they battled for position on those switches to not allow an easy roll or post up by a bigger player.
I saw how LeBron rotated on the back line of the defense. How he got into position early, how he got big to discourage shooting attempts, how he challenged shots when guys decided to let it fly anyway. I also saw how Bron switched out when needed and slid his feet and stayed with the likes of Herro and Robinson as they hunted shots, doing his best to mirror their movements to not give them any daylight. I saw how AD, again, held up in isolation vs. any and all comers. How he blocked Bam Adebayo. How he blocked Kendrick Nunn. How he blocked Jimmy Butler. All in the 2nd half.
And yes, I know when it was time to win the game in those final 6 minutes what so many of us will remember most will almost certainly shift to the other side of the ball. LeBron splitting the P&R and driving for the finish plus the foul. KCP’s corner 3 off a great push and kick ahead pass by Bron. Rondo’s layup when he froze Bam in the P&R, looking like he might pass only to scoop in the shot instead. KCP’s late clock show and go drive for a layup past Robinson. AD’s dagger triple off another Rondo assist.
These buckets, in a game where points were so hard to come by, will be etched in my mind forever.
But, those possessions, as important as they were, weren’t why the Lakers actually won the game. They won because when it was time to be who they actually are, they locked in and defended at a level they hadn’t all series. They called on the most elemental part — the most foundational part of their DNA — and they defended like their basketball lives depended on it. When the pressure was the highest, the Lakers got defensive.
And because of that, they’re one win away from an NBA championship.