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Lakers burn Heat with 3-pointers in Game 1 of NBA Finals, but they were mostly shots Miami wanted them to take

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There are myriad reasons the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat 116-98 on Wednesday night to take a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals. Anthony Davis and LeBron James were spectacular, combining for 59 points, 22 rebounds and 14 assists. The Lakers’ bench was tremendous — particularly Alex Caruso — as was their defense once it weathered Miami’s surge to start the game. They pounded the Heat on the glass and doubled their free throw attempts. 

But more than anything, the Lakers shot the lights out from 3-point range in the first half. Counting LeBron’s triple to start the second half, the Lakers were 12 for their first 18 from deep. They shot 65 percent from 3 in the first half, and It simply put Miami in too big a hole, with the Lakers eventually growing their lead to 32 points. 

The most frustrating part of this for the Heat? These are the exact shots they wanted the Lakers to take. Including Wednesday’s game, the Lakers are making just 11.6 3s per game in the postseason, which ranks 15th out of the 16 playoff teams, and they’re only hitting those 3s at a 35.5 percent clip. Where the Lakers kill you is in the paint. Once LeBron and Davis start getting into the core of your defense, it’s over. 

So for Miami it’s simple, at least in theory: Double the two superstars, make the Lakers pass the ball around until it hopefully lands in the hands of a suspect shooter late in the shot clock. From there, Miami relies on its stellar rotation and the law of averages to win the possession.


That didn’t happen on Wednesday, as the Lakers shot above their norm, but it’s not because the Heat didn’t do their jobs, which is something they can build on for Game 2. If they continue to force the Lakers to take and make these kinds of shots, there’s a legitimate hope they will start missing some of them (or hopefully lots of them for their sake) as the series goes on. 

Let’s quickly break down the Lakers’ 11 first-half 3-pointers through the lens of what Miami did well. 

1. Anthony Davis from left wing

As you’ll see, the Heat double Davis in the post early in the possession, force a reversal, rotate to all the shooters before the ball ends up in LeBron’s hands on the other side of the court. Goran Dragic then leaves Danny Green to double LeBron, who skips a cross-court pass to Davis, who is forced to hit a pump-fake 3 with Jimmy Butler closing hard with under two seconds left on the shot clock: 

So to summarize, the Heat forced the ball out of the Lakers’ two stars hands twice, stifled the offense for 22 seconds of the shot clock, and forced a guy who shot 33 percent from 3 during the regular season to hit a contested shot at the end of the clock. They will take that every time. 

2. LeBron off the dribble

This one is pretty simple. James tries to rush the ball down the court, gaining maybe a half step on Jimmy Butler, at which point Bam Adebayo cuts him off and switches onto LeBron, who then backs the ball out and pulls an isolation 3:

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LeBron shot under 35 percent from 3 this season, and he’s under 36 percent for the playoffs. True, he’s a better and more comfortable shooter off the dribble (he hit his step-back 3s at over 41 percent this season, and this is indeed a step-back), but you still gladly take this if you are the Heat. You cut off LeBron’s penetration, you forced him into a tough shot without anyone else touching the ball, and you contested that shot. From there, it’s make or miss. He made it. But that doesn’t mean he’ll keep making it. 

3. KCP from the corner

Here again, the Heat double Davis in the post and force a pass out. Kyle Kuzma drives, Tyler Herro stunts at him before jumping out to Danny Green, leaving Kentavious Caldwell-Pope open in the corner: 

Again, Miami gets the ball out of Davis’ hands, Herro stunts down on Kuzma when it looks like he has Andre Iguodala beat and then jumps out to Green, which leaves Herro’s original man, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, open in the corner. You could argue that Jae Crowder had rotated over to cut off Iguodala in time, and that as such Herro could’ve stayed with KCP, or even could’ve flown back to KCP after the stunt and instead forced the pass to Green, who is shooting far worse than KCP in the playoffs (and above-the-break 3s are always preferred to corner shots). But these are split-second decisions, and Miami didn’t play this terribly. KCP just hit a shot. 

4. KCP from the corner … again

Very next possession, and to me, this is the worst defensive showing on any of these 3-pointers. The Heat are in a zone, and Davis comes to set a ball screen for Rajon Rondo. For some reason, the Heat double Rondo, which leaves Davis to roll into the lane alone, which forces Duncan Robinson to come down from the corner to pick up Davis, leaving KCP wide open from the same spot he just hit a 3 from on the previous possession:

I don’t know if this was a mistake of aggression or what, but doubling Rondo at the 3-point line and leaving Davis to roll (or slip) free to the lane is not a smart decision. Someone is obviously going to have to come down on him, and now you’re playing 1-on-2, all so you can double a bad shooter 25 feet from the basket. This one is on the Heat. 

5. Caruso from the corner

This is the Lakers’ last possession of the first quarter. The Heat double LeBron off the pick-and-roll (good), drop down on Rondo when LeBron hits him on the roll (good), close out on Davis on the kick-out (good) and force a swing to Alex Caruso, who has to shoot with under three seconds on the shot clock:

Again, there is no way to say this isn’t defended well. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are both on the court, they both touch the ball, and still the Heat force Caruso, a 25 percent 3-point shooter in the playoffs, to fire up a late-clock 3. If these types of bad shooters are going to make these types of shots, the Heat have no chance. They just have to keep doing their job and relying on the averages. 

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6. Kuzma from the corner

Here’s another corner 3 the Heat will live with. First, Jimmy Butler stays in front of LeBron, who still powers his way deep into the paint. The Heat collapse down on him (as they should), and he makes a stumbling pass to Kyle Kuzma, who has to hit a fading 3 with Iguodala’s hand right in his face: 

Kuzma is a shooting 31 percent from long range in the playoffs. Playing against superstars is about making other guys beat you as often as possible, and the Heat did that. They forced the ball out of the best players’ hands and forced a streaky shooter to hit a difficult shot. The Heat have every reason to believe Kuzma will miss a lot of these shots as the series goes on; he just didn’t miss this one. 

7. Rondo from the wing

Here the Heat wall off LeBron in semi-transition (good), force a kick out to Markieff Morris, who then swings it to Rondo, before Solomon Hill backs off Rondo (rightly) and absolutely dares him to take the shot: 

Rondo is shooting 41 percent from 3 in the playoffs, but pay that number absolutely no mind. He is a bad shooter, and he should be treated as such for the rest of his career. Any time LeBron James is on the floor and you force a Rajon Rondo 3-pointer, you have done your job. If he makes it, as they say, you tip your hat and remain firm in the warranted belief that he will not continue to do so.

8. Danny Green off a curl

Again LeBron has the ball in the post. The Heat don’t double, but Bam Adebayo is not going to leave the paint; in case James puts his head down and drives the lane, he’s the helper. So when Adebayo’s man, Markieff Morris, sets the screen, that means no one is switching out on Green, leaving Duncan Robinson to trail over the screen and contest from behind: 

This is good defense. Green couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat in the early part of the playoffs, and though he’s picked it up a bit lately, you still choose to let him take a tough catch-and-shoot over leaving a wide open lane for LeBron to penetrate every day of the week. Defense is about choices, and Miami made the right one here. Don’t let the result blind you from the process. Results can change. Process is what stays consistent with the best defensive teams. 

9. Davis from the top

The Heat double LeBron (are you sensing a theme here?) and recover to Green in the corner. Green then makes one of the best off-the-dribble plays I can remember him making, beating Robinson — which forces Crowder down off Davis at the top of the key — before whipping a left-handed laser to Davis from the baseline: 

Again, these are not the plays you can depend on the Lakers making consistently. Green is the polar opposite of a playmaking athlete who whips one-hand passes from the baseline to the top of the key on the move. True, Robinson can’t let Green beat him off the dribble in the first place, but still, this is just an outlier play from Green. 

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10. Markieff Morris inside-out

Here Davis gets the ball in the post, and Miami does a good job of waiting until late in the shot clock to come with a double team. They had a lot of success doing that against Giannis Antetokounmpo in their second-round win over the Bucks. This time it leaves Morris open from the top of the key:

Morris is shooting 60 percent from 3 since the start of the conference finals against Denver and 45 percent for the playoffs overall. If you can avoid it, he and KCP are not the guys to leave open right now. But again, it’s about choices, and the alternative was to let Davis play one-on-one in the post against Iguodala, who is simply out-sized. The way Davis is shooting from the mid-range in these playoffs, you take your chances with someone else making a shot. To Morris’ credit, he made it. 

11. Danny Green catch and shoot

There are two things to this possession: One, Jimmy Butler does not rotate hard at all to Green when the ball is swung to him, but that’s probably because, two, the Heat are OK with Green shooting. Once Green has the ball, Crowder isn’t going to rotate all the way up and leave KCP (a better shooter) in the corner (an easier shot): 

You can see Crowder stunted (to no effect) toward Green, but he was never going to leave KCP. Miami’s zone defense has been successful in large part because the long players at the top really close hard when the ball is swung. Butler didn’t do that here. That could be because he’s rightfully more worried about leaving Davis unoccupied than he is Green shooting, or simply because he got lazy on this play. One-pass, wide-open 3 are not a good thing, and certainly Erik Spoelstra will not be happy with this possession when they watch the film on Thursday. 

That said, I believe it’s fair to say that for the most part, Miami was pretty sound in its 3-point defense in Game 1. The Lakers cooled off, only hitting four 3-pointers in the second half, including just one in the third quarter. That’s something to build on. Chances are the Lakers are going to hit a cold streak if the Heat continue to force the guys they want to shoot to end up with the ball, particularly late in the shot clock. 

That doesn’t mean the Lakers missing shots is all it will take for Miami to take a game or certainly win the series. The best teams can beat you multiple ways, and indeed the Lakers could just kill Miami on the offensive glass (as they did Denver) if a few of these shots start rimming out. But the Heat can worry about that when it happens. If the Lakers keep making 11 3s in one half, the Heat have no chance. Their only shot — so to speak — is to stay true to the plan , as they mostly did in Game 1, and hope they can in turn shoot it better themselves on the other end. 

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