So close, yet so far away. If there’s one thought I have heading into tonight’s game 5 between the Lakers and the Heat, this is it. The Lakers may be a single win away from an NBA championship, but the Heat have proven over and over again what their ethos is as a team. They are battlers who believe in their ability to win. And their level of play, their competitiveness in the moment, is going to reflect that.
The point of this series, then, remains. Ever since the Lakers took their foot off the gas in game 2, I’ve harped on the idea of needing to do the work in order to get the results. The Lakers didn’t do it in game 3 and got their hats handed to them. In game 4, the Lakers got back to the necessary effort and attentiveness they needed and grabbed that crucial win. In game 5, they’ll need a reprise of that effort in order to celebrate. And if they don’t, there’s a real chance they’ll be suiting up again on Sunday.
The strategy around this series is now well established, but game 4 did offer real adjustments that will flow into tonight’s preparations. Deploying AD on Butler defensively is something the Heat will need to figure out. In the 2nd half AD was able to get under screens and still recover back to Jimmy in time to deter his primary wants as a scorer. Will Jimmy adjust his approach tonight? Will he shoot more 3’s? Will he be screened for more often than he sets screens (and runs handoffs) for his teammates?
What about Robinson and Herro? Will Spoelstra deploy counters to the overplays and aggressiveness the Lakers are showing in covering those screen and handoff actions? Will they use more misdirection to free them up? Will we see more flare actions, more backcuts? Will we see more of the “keeper” handoff actions where the Lakers aggressiveness in jumping out to those shooters is used against them? The Heat saw in game 4 that the level of effort the Lakers are showing in defending these actions can be sustained, so leveraging that against them should be anticipated and prepared for.
From the Lakers offense/Heat defense side, the adjustments deserve much consideration too. Markieff Morris started the 2nd half of game 4 and the Lakers used the spacing he helped generate to find more driving lanes and cleaner 3 point shots. I do expect Morris to start this game from the beginning, hoping to leverage his shooting Bron more downhill and AD more opportunities to play in single coverage. The shooting that these lineups offer, though, cannot be theoretical — the Lakers must make shots. If they don’t, the Heat will only be emboldened to pack the paint even more.
I also expect the Lakers to use more designed actions to get AD involved, both as a screener and as a cutter/slasher moving to the rim. A key set the Lakers employed Tuesday was the Lakers elbow series which involves an entry to Bron from a guard and then a wide pin-down screen set for AD in the corner. AD has the option to flare to the corner for a 3-point attempt, come off the screen hard on a cut to the paint, or break that cut off to flow into a P&R with Bron near the elbow area. This is a key action the Lakers can use, I hope to see more of it tonight.
Beyond LA’s two stars, this would be a really good time for a role player to step up with a strong scoring night. If game 4 was the KCP game, can game 5 be the Kuzma game? Morris? Danny Green? Caruso? RONDO? There’s options and opportunities here. Every single one of these guys is very likely to get open looks. If one can have a night where they’re 3-4 from distance or find a way to get out in transition for a couple of easy baskets or grab a couple of offensive rebounds, it will go a long way towards giving the Lakers the type of boost that can propel them forward.
None of this will be easy, though. The Heat will almost certainly ensure that’s the case. And, honestly, it’s as it should be. Winning it all is hard. Closing a team out, particularly one as tough mentally and phyiscally as the Heat, is even harder. The Lakers understand this as well as anyone and I expect their effort and focus to reflect that.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on ABC.