NBA Finals Takeaways: James, Lakers look hungry to close series out

LeBron James wants to go home. With a little luck he might be back in L.A. on Saturday.

After a disappointing loss to the short-handed Miami Heat in Game 3, James and the Lakers took control of the series with a hard-fought 102-96 win in Game 4 to take a 3-1 lead into Game 5 with a chance to close out the series with a win Friday night.

Pull that off and not only would James and his teammates be able to leave the bubble on campus at Walt Disney World Resort for the first time in more than three months, but he’ll have a fourth championship ring to show for his time.

Takeaways:

1. Whether the Heat win or lose the NBA Finals, no one is going to look at Heat star Jimmy Butler the same way again. Butler’s image had already been made over well before his historic performance in Game 3, when he became just the third player in NBA history to have a 40-point triple double — joining Jerry West and James.

Butler’s huge game was only an exclamation point on a season where Butler has successfully shifted his perception from that of a hyper-competitive troublemaker who struggled to play well with others to a hyper-competitive leader in search of the right type of teammates — which he’s found Miami.

But Butler’s high-usage explosion wasn’t how he usually expresses his leadership abilities. The Heat are one of most egalitarian offences in the NBA — 46 players had higher usage rates (the percentage of a team’s possessions that end with a player’s shot, turnover, assist or free throw) than Butler’s 25.1 mark in the regular season. But with the Lakers determined to stay home on the Heat’s three-point shooters, Butler needed to go 1-on-1 to create offence in Game 3.

Butler looked ready to pick up where he left off with 11 first-quarter points, but he didn’t have to do it as much in Game 4 with the return of Bam Adebayo, who missed two games with a neck strain. But as the game wore on, it became clear the Lakers weren’t about to allow a repeat performance by Butler. The Heat star saw a steady dose of taller Laker defenders — Davis or James mostly — in the second half and the attacks on the paint slowed and the turnarounds in the lane fell short as Butler was just 3-of-12 after his quick first-quarter start.

No one who is watching doesn’t expect Butler to give everything he has to extend the series to a sixth game on Sunday. He may have been that type of player for a while, but now it’s on display for all to see, even though the Lakers were effective in turning off his water in Game 4 after his quick start.

2. James sparked a minor — and we say minor — controversy when he turned heel and left the floor before the final seconds of Game 3, his frustration evident with the Lakers performance in the loss. How James would channel the frustration of letting a golden opportunity for a 3-0 stranglehold slip away was the subtext of Game 4.

In the early going it looked more and more like the James’ old coach — Heat bench boss Eric Spoelstra — had found a formula to limit James’ impact: play zone, or otherwise pack the paint and force James to either shoot over top of the defence or drive into a crowd, all while limiting his chances in transition.

Through the first half, James was just 3-of-8 from the floor with five turnovers. The Lakers led by two at the half in spite of James, rather than because him. But James started the second half with a couple of deep threes and forced his way to the free throw line. He picked up his effort defensively and got the Lakers into transition with some tough rebounds in traffic, such as the one he wrestled from Adebayo that he fed to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for the Lakers’ first triple of the fourth quarter that put Los Angeles up 95-88 with 2:25 to play.

By the time the horn sounded, James had found a way, as he almost always does, finishing with 20 of his game-high 28 points in the second half, a nice complement to his 12 rebounds and eight assists. James had six turnovers, bringing his total to 14 in the past two games, but anyone who doesn’t think he’ll figure that out by Game 5 hasn’t been paying attention.

3. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel was optimistic that Anthony Davis — the best player on either team in Games 1 and 2 — would bounce back from a no-show in Game 3.

“He’s a great player. So obviously great players have great pride, and if they have a sub-par performance for whatever reason, they typically want to bounce back with a lot of assertiveness. We’ve seen that from Anthony throughout the course of this season, and hopefully we’ll see that again tonight,” Vogel said before the game.

Davis showed early that he was going to be more of a factor almost immediately. In one first-quarter sequence, he forced the Heat’s Tyler Herro into a miss in transition, then called for the ball on a deep post-up and scored — and then came back and and blocked a Kelly Olynyk lay-up attempt, giving the Lakers some solid minutes with James on the bench as L.A. took a 27-22 lead heading into the second quarter.

The Heat did a good job marginalizing Davis’ offence for long stretches — he was surrounded by at least two Miami defenders at all times, it seemed. But Davis wriggled free for a huge three with 39.5 seconds left to put the Lakers up nine, effectively sealing the win.

And defensively, his block on Butler with 21 second left — Davis’ fourth block of the game — made sure as the Lakers star bounced back with 22 points, nine rebounds and four assists in 41 minutes of floor time. His individual defence on Butler was even more impressive.

4. One of the storylines that didn’t get explored all that much in the summer of 2019 when the Toronto Raptors were waiting on Kawhi Leonard to let them know what he was going to do in free agency was how Leonard’s decision would impact Green’s future.

There was an expectation that if Leonard returned, Green would come back too and try and defend the Raptors title. But when Leonard left, the Raptors weren’t about to pay Green $40 million over two years, while the Lakers — desperate for shooting to surround James and Davis — would, and off went one of the most popular one-year Raptors ever.

In retrospect, the Raptors dodged a bullet. Green was his reliable self in the regular season — averaging 41.6 per cent from three — but has looked overmatched in the playoffs as defences are more attentive, and Green has almost no ability to attack a close out or otherwise make plays when he’s being run off the three-point line. But even so, there have been plenty of open looks, and Green has made not enough of them — he was just 4-of-20 from deep in the first three games on the series, shooting just 26 per cent from deep since the start of the conference finals, which is likely why Green exalted after making his second three of the game in the second quarter.

The Lakers are short on three-point shooters and the Heat have been happy to settle back and force the Lakers to put up a record numbers of threes. Green should be feasting but instead finished just 2-of-6 from three and was on the bench during the fourth quarter when the Lakers were missing their first nine triples and it looked like the Heat were getting in position to steal a win.

Instead it was fellow role player Caldwell-Pope who gave the Lakers a much-needed boost, as he finished with 15 points, including two key scores in the final 2:25 that kept the Heat at bay.

5. The Heat got a nice lift with the return of Adebayo. The mobile forward scored 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting and gave Miami another body to throw at Davis. But with Adebayo back, Canada’s Olynyk — a surprise star off the bench in Game 3 and 4 — saw his minutes slip to 12:25 from 37 in Game 2.

It was the 20-year-old Herro who tried to pick things up for the Heat, scoring 12 of his 20 points in the fourth, but the Lakers weren’t going to let the Heat off the hook.

They want to go home, and they want to go home with a ring.

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