The Los Angeles Lakers are still in command of the NBA Finals, holding a 2-1 series lead over the Miami Heat, but with Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo still out on Sunday, they had a tremendous opportunity to put Miami in a 3-0 hole and all but wrap up a championship.
Instead, they struggled to find any sort of rhythm in Game 3 on offense as Miami made some great adjustments on the defensive end, and the Lakers succumbed to the will of Jimmy Butler when the Heat had the ball. Butler finished with 40 points, 13 assists, and 10 rebounds, marking the first time a LeBron opponent had out-scored, out-rebounded, and out-assisted him all in the same game in the NBA Finals.
Butler was nothing short of sensational, but given who the Heat had available on Sunday, it was a bit surprising at just how willing the Lakers were to give him the matchups he wanted throughout the game — particularly when guarded by LeBron James.
In the Nuggets series, LeBron James took it upon himself late in the series to pick up Jamal Murray towards the end of games on defense and the result was Denver’s star guard finding it difficult to create quality looks. In Game 3, James appeared to be ready to do the same in the fourth quarter, but with the Lakers going small, James and the rest of the team were far too willing to provide Butler with his preferred matchup with immediate switches whenever Jae Crowder or Tyler Herro came to set a weak screen for him.
Anthony Slater of The Athletic cut together four such possessions in the fourth quarter that led to eight crucial Butler points to keep the Lakers at arm’s length.
Here is LeBron handing off Butler to a worse defender on four of the night's biggest possessions — two fouls, two makes, eight crucial points pic.twitter.com/3JoJYaZ6g8
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) October 5, 2020
It’s something that’s plagued teams all postseason, a willingness to let superstars hunt their preferred matchups due to a refusal to adapt their ultra-switching schemes to the situation at hand. However, what made the Lakers approach so frustrating is that they, of all teams, should know the dangers of this, as LeBron James is the most aggressive player in the league at hunting mismatches by calling for weak on-ball screens from perimeter players.
That James would simply cede the Butler assignment to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Markieff Morris, or Kyle Kuzma, defenders Butler clearly wanted to target and had great success against, is simply unacceptable in this situation. In some instances, such as the third clip, a screen never even happens, with James just walking off of the Butler assignment as Crowder walks through the area to leave Jimmy with Morris.
L.A. had cut the Miami lead to as few as four in the fourth quarter, but allowed Butler to take over down the stretch in large part due to their willingness to give him the matchups he wanted. The Heat certainly put pressure on the Lakers defense by deploying a lineup with Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Kelly Olynyk down the stretch, as all three of those players are more than capable as three-point shooters and as such you have to try staying attached to them. That means, when they come to set a screen, you can’t hard double Butler and risk leaving them wide open.
Still, no one else on the floor was a significant on-ball threat — Herro certainly has shown a knack for making big shots, but at 6-for-18 on the night, you’d certainly prefer the rookie trying to create over Butler — and yet they didn’t even try to get the ball out of Jimmy’s hands by refusing him switches onto smaller or slower defenders.
On top of that, Butler isn’t a threat as a shooter from deep, and you’re far better served by him hoisting a three or a long two off the dribble than allowing him to get downhill and to his spots, either in the short mid-range or at the rim where he’s elite at drawing fouls. As such, it should be an easy call to just go under a screen — especially screens as soft as what the Heat were setting late — and stay with Butler, allowing the other defender to lock and trail through the action.
Instead, the Lakers played into Butler’s hands in a way we usually see teams fall for the same trap on the other end for LeBron, whether out of pride or exhaustion or some combination of the two. Now, we’ll wait to see if the Lakers make an adjustment for their late game defense after their first taste of the Heat’s real crunch time offense when they have the lead.
With the Heat possibly getting Bam Adebayo and/or Goran Dragic back for Game 4, that task would get even more complicated, but one lesson the Lakers should learn is certain: Don’t simply give Jimmy Butler what he wants.