Note: This column has been updated with the report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Bam Adebayo plans to return for Game 4.
This is the third NBA Finals in six seasons in which injuries have either completely changed the series midstream or forced one team to game-plan for two different opponents.
The Los Angeles Lakers, under at least a little pressure after the Miami Heat‘s rousing Game 3 win saw L.A.’s series lead tighten to 2-1, had to prepare for the Heat with and without Bam Adebayo, who was listed as questionable for Game 4 after missing Games 2 and 3 with injury and now plans to return.
With that in mind, let’s look at some Finals numbers and what they might hint about Game 4 (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET, ABC and the ESPN App).
Miami has scored 120.5 points per 100 possessions over the past two games, a mark that would blow away the Dallas Mavericks‘ No. 1-ranked offense. That isn’t sustainable against the Lakers’ defense. And it was hard to imagine the Heat winning three more games without Adebayo’s two-way play. (LeBron James‘ teams have never lost a series after taking a 2-0 lead.)
But Miami caught lightning in a bottle by surrounding Jimmy Butler with four shooters when Adebayo was out.
The Lakers’ suffered more defensive breakdowns than usual in Game 3. They will clean up some of those. They know now how the Heat look and feel with one more shooter. A team down 2-0 plays with a level of desperation its opponent rarely matches. Any intensity gap should close in Game 4.
But Miami coaxed those breakdowns. As Jeff Van Gundy often says, great shooters make the best screeners. Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro doing a Splash Brothers impression while someone else holds the ball is stressful. Those guys run hard; Erik Spoelstra has compared Robinson’s route running to Jerry Rice’s. Panic ratchets up when one of them busts out of that jumble to sprint around a pick from Kelly Olynyk — another ace shooter.
I don’t care what team is defending that. They are going to make mistakes. The catchall solution is switching everything, but the Heat countered that by having screeners slip out of picks before setting them — zooming ahead of Lakers switches.
The Heat were also smart about using Butler — the only non-3-point shooter on the floor much of Game 3 — as screener, and having him fly out of picks:
Having Butler screen left Anthony Davis — guarding Olynyk above — out of the action, unable to exert influence as a help defender.
The Lakers want only LeBron and Davis on Butler, with some allowance for Howard to take him on switches. The Heat produced more favorable matchups, including by having Butler slip screens with such ferocity as to force the Lakers into switching:
The Lakers and LeBron took a ton of criticism for conceding switches in crunch time, and watching Butler barbecue overmatched defenders. But traditional help-and-recover tactics are dicey when Butler’s screener is a threat to pop for 3s.
The Lakers might try ducking under screens for Butler in Game 4, and daring Butler to hoist jumpers. (They had major trouble with staggered screening actions for Butler.)
The Heat flashed a counter: setting screens so low on the floor that darting under would gift Butler short jumpers.
If Butler knows a switch is coming, he’ll feint toward a screen, get his guy leaning there, and bolt the other direction.
Random Butler tangent: The Butler-Paul George debate has raged awhile. Both have ranked somewhere between the league’s eighth- and 12th-best players the past few seasons. I have (barely) leaned George in the past, though both are amazing.
The reasoning, which you hear within the league: Neither is winning a ring as the No. 1 option, and George, because of his shooting, is the perfect No. 2.
Well, the Heat are within three wins of a title. They might not win it, but getting so close is a reminder these distinctions — who can be the “best guy on a championship team”? — can get blurry and depend heavily on roster construction and other variables.
That is the Lakers’ margin with Howard on the floor in the Finals. They are plus-29 with Howard sitting. That’s not as bad as it sounds. But Howard might have more utility against Adebayo than with Miami playing stretch centers. The Heat presented zero offensive rebounding threat when playing without Adebayo.
The Lakers are faster and more switchable with Davis at center. When Robinson pops off an Olynyk screen, Davis can lunge and recover faster than Howard — or switch in a crisis.
The sacrifice comes in rim protection. If Davis is 30 feet from the hoop and Howard is on the bench, that leaves LeBron as the only shot-blocking deterrent. He might be 30 feet from the hoop too. But the Heat without Goran Dragic are short on driving threats.
That is the share of L.A.’s shots that came at the basket in Game 3, its third-lowest single-game mark of the season, per Cleaning The Glass. The Lakers over Games 2 and 3 attempted 89 3s and 87 2s. In the regular season, 40% of their shots came at the rim — second most.
The Heat played mostly zone in Game 2 and man-to-man in Game 3, but the effect on the Lakers’ shot chart was the same: way fewer shots at the rim, and a Houstonian level of 3s.
One big difference: L.A. shot 20-of-37 (54%) on 2s in Game 3 after hitting 33-of-50 (66%) in Game 2.
How much of that was Miami’s game plan, and how much was luck — plus Davis’ foul trouble?
The Lakers in Game 2 knew how to crack open soft spots in the zone. They manipulated.
To some degree, the Heat dictated terms of engagement in Game 3. They decided where the soft spots would be. They hit first.
Miami swarmed LeBron and Davis, and had support defenders take an extra step toward the basket. Jae Crowder fronted Davis knowing a teammate — usually Howard’s man along the baseline — was behind him, preventing the lob pass. Removing Howard makes every Miami rotation longer, and opens easier entry passes.
When Howard was up top, Miami ignored him to sandwich Davis. Watch Leonard:
Could Howard flash to the foul line for a high-low? Maybe. But Miami doesn’t fear his playmaking. He is more useful as a baseline lob threat. If Howard is up top with no one near him, he could set a quick ball screen for LeBron — allowing LeBron to zip around it with a long runway. (That is what Draymond Green does when defenses ignore him: Morph into a sudden screener. The Lakers have no one resembling a Splash Brother, but LeBron inflicts pain in different ways.)
The Lakers also ran Davis through screens underneath the rim to spring him for post-ups. They will revisit that.
With Adebayo returning, Spoelstra faces another decision: Have Adebayo guard Davis — shifting Crowder onto Howard if the Lakers start big — or maintain current matchups?
That is the number of LeBron-Davis pick-and-rolls the Lakers have run through three Finals games, per Second Spectrum. That is astonishing, even if tracking algorithms might undercount by one or two picks.
When Howard plays, LeBron often uses him as screener — turning Davis into a spot-up threat. LeBron has leaned hard on his guards as screeners — a method of hunting Herro, Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. Here is LeBron cycling through both methods of attack in one possession:
On the LeBron/Howard dance, all three Heat help defenders plant a foot in the paint. Nothing doing. Using Danny Green as screener means one less spot-up threat around the central action. Miami blankets the paint again.
Here’s the same style of defense thwarting a LeBron-Alex Caruso pick-and-roll:
The Heat switch Herro onto LeBron and somehow re-switch even though Butler and Herro end up 20 feet apart. Re-switching there should be almost impossible; it risks leaving Caruso wide open. But the Heat pull it off because all three help defenders straddle the paint — ready to pounce on Caruso.
LeBron makes them pay by rejecting Caruso’s second pick — wrong-footing the defense.
Miami’s help defenders in Game 3 closed softly to the Lakers’ perimeter shooters. They did not sprint at them, and fly by them. They chose to let those guys fire semi-contested 3s instead of giving them drives.
The Lakers’ secondary guys are not exactly fearsome off-the-dribble threats, but they’ve done enough making the next play when defenses run them off the arc. The Heat mostly shut those opportunities off.
The result was a hail of 3s. The Lakers hit 14-of-42. That’s not, like, horrible. It’s 33% — two percentage points below the Lakers’ average. Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma went 9-of-19. You can’t bank on that every game.
Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit just 1-of-7 and are 4-of-26 over the past two games. They will shoot better, though Green is dealing with a hip injury. If Morris and Kuzma regress when Green and Caldwell-Pope heat up, the net effect might be the same.
Maybe the Lakers have a 3-point avalanche coming. Maybe Miami gets sloppy with the ball. Any underdog must limit the Lakers’ transition game, and the Heat have done it. They have coughed it up on only 10.8% of possessions — way below the league’s lowest regular-season rate. All three Finals games rank among the Lakers’ bottom dozen or so in total transition chances, per Cleaning The Glass. (Only 3% of L.A. possessions in Game 2 finished via transition attacks — a season low.) That is a huge reason the Lakers’ shots at the rim are down. Fast breaks equal dunks.
It’s hard to plan for hot shooting or opponent gaffes. The Lakers can strategize to get more clean 2s in the half-court — more cascading drive-and-kick sequences on which they dictate terms.
If the Lakers play Davis at center more, they might be able to re-weaponize the LeBron-Davis pick-and-roll. Adebayo’s return will complicate that. He will guard Davis, and switch onto LeBron. When Adebayo is out, the Heat can hide Olynyk on the perimeter, keep Crowder on Davis, and switch the LeBron-Davis action.
Fine. Try it anyway. When Davis defends Olynyk, there will be lots of possessions — after L.A. stops — when Olynyk is stuck on Davis. Hunt that, and have Davis roll hard instead of fading for jumpers. The Heat might respond by going zone, but the Lakers are OK with that.
LeBron knows all the counters. He will mix in sideline pick-and-rolls with his guards so they can flare to the corner for 3s — instead of rolling down the packed middle of the floor. Going early in the shot clock, before the defense is set, always helps:
LeBron has only 11 post touches in the series, per Second Spectrum. Those have produced heaps of points, as is customary for LeBron. He has done work against both Butler and Andre Iguodala, though that work is taxing.
LeBron setting screens for Caruso, Rajon Rondo, and even Davis is a smart change of pace. The Lakers have a bundle of set plays and misdirection actions.
And that’s the point: The Lakers have to work for this game, this series, this championship. The Heat are not still in the bubble for a coronation.