Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat was not just a blowout in the former’s favor, but an injury-riddled disaster for the latter. There were plenty of positives for the Lakers and almost none for the Heat, which provides plenty of fodder for instant overreactions in the 48 hours between games. Here are a handful of them, which may be the story of the series or a script for how it turns around.
The Lakers busted the Heat zone
Just before Kentavious Caldwell-Pope drilled the second of consecutive corner 3-pointers, the ignition of a 75-30 run by the Lakers that began late in the first quarter, ESPN analyst Mark Jackson said, “As we see the zone of the Miami Heat, which has been so effective, especially in the Eastern Conference finals.”
Only, what looked like the zone was actually just terrible defense, full of failed rotations. Jimmy Butler left Anthony Davis on a loosely set screen for Rajon Rondo, only Tyler Herro never switched. Duncan Robinson had to help onto the rolling Davis from the corner, where Rajon Rondo found a wide-open Caldwell-Pope. Doubling Rondo 25 feet from the basket to leave Robinson on Davis and Caldwell-Pope open for a corner three he has made 50 percent of the time in the playoffs may be unacceptable, but it is no fault of the zone.
The Heat did break out the zone for a few possessions late in the second quarter, when the game was starting to slip. It worked at first, forcing Davis into a failed long jumper, but the Lakers quickly torched it. Danny Green drilled a 3-pointer early in the next possession, when the long arms of Butler and Andre Iguodala were too worried about Davis at the top of the zone. Then, Rondo set a screen at the top for LeBron James, who picked up speed through the gap in the zone, ultimately forcing Bam Adebayo to pick between leaving Davis or challenging James. Either option was an easy bucket and led to a 12-point Lakers lead.
Heat only played three possessions of zone last night, giving up five points. Their lowest zone usage since the start of the Boston series, in which they used it at least 10 times a game.
— Couper Moorhead (@CoupNBA) October 1, 2020
And that’s the thing. This zone is not going to catch the Lakers by surprise, as it did the young Boston Celtics. The Lakers are too experienced. James, Rondo and Green recognized it from the jump, knowing full well how to attack it early, and the holes in the zone only grow larger with so much attention paid to Davis.
Dwight Howard is a Lakers liability
Goran Dragic and Adebayo dominated the opening minutes, repeatedly putting Lakers center Dwight Howard in pick-and-roll defense and working him for eight points and three assists in the game’s first 6:24. The Heat led 23-10 when Lakers coach Frank Vogel pulled Howard for Kyle Kuzma and a small-ball look that left Davis at center. By the time Howard returned to start the second half, the Lakers led, 65-48.
The Lakers have been good with Howard at center in the playoffs, outscoring opponents by 6.1 points per 100 possessions, roughly the same as they did during the regular season. That figure balloons to 15.8 points per 100 possessions with Davis manning the middle in the playoffs, nearly triple their regular-season production. Credit a shorter rotation, meaning better players around him more often — specifically James.
It was no coincidence that the Lakers enjoyed far more success with Howard in the lineup to start the third quarter, when a foot injury kept Dragic from joining the Heat after halftime. The Lakers stretched an 18-point lead to 32 midway through the third quarter, when Howard found Davis for a dunk with an injured Adebayo still clutching his shoulder in the backcourt. Gone was Miami’s most dangerous pick-and-roll threat, forcing Kendrick Nunn and Kelly Olynyk into action they had not seen since early in the Eastern Conference finals.
Nunn and Olynyk played a 2:35 stretch opposite Howard, marginally trimming an insurmountable deficit by four. Olynyk beat Howard in transition, and Nunn blew by Howard for another layup off a pick-and-roll switch. That was an encouraging sign for the Heat, who must find advantages anywhere they can. If Dragic cannot return, and/or Adebayo is less effective, Miami still has offensive options to make Howard pay.
The Heat also cannot let Howard consume too much of their defensive attention. No defender spent more time on Howard than Adebayo, repeatedly leaving Davis with a mismatch. If the Lakers are going to win by exploiting Jae Crowder’s defense on Howard, so be it. At least Miami will have put its best foot forward.
Tyler Herro is in over his head
The 20-year-old Herro looked hesitant, which is something you never would have figured after watching him in the conference finals. Few rookies have ever appeared so confident in the playoffs, but the Lakers are a different animal than the Celtics. L.A. has length on the interior that casts a shadow over all that daylight Herro had to swing games against Boston’s small-ball lineups with his cuts and drives and pull-up jumpers.
The Heat must to find Herro more catch-and-shoot opportunities, and that probably means Butler will have to attack the basket more often for kick-outs, especially with Dragic’s status in limbo. Nunn could be called upon more often, too. Both during the regular season and playoffs, Herro is better than a 40 percent 3-point shooter off the catch and closer to 30 percent on pull-ups. He made two of his three catch-and shoot chances in Game 1, and that is not nearly enough against a team with limited perimeter defense options.
Same goes for Robinson, who took seven catch-and-shoot threes per game during the regular season and made them at a 46 percent clip. He took two in Game 1 and missed them both. Now is not the time to stop shooting. If the Heat have any chance, it is with a barrage of 3-pointers, and they have the guns for it.
The Lakers cannot continue to shoot like this
The Lakers made 11 of their 17 first-half 3-pointers, eight of which came from players not named James or Davis. They finished 15 for 38 for 39.5 percent, far better than the Heat’s 31.4 percent clip (11 for 35).
L.A. made 15 or more threes on just 10 occasions during the regular season, and Wednesday marked just the third time the Lakers reached that mark in the playoffs. They shot 34.9 percent as a team during the regular season, a bottom-10 mark in the league, and they have only been marginally better in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Miami has made 11 or fewer threes on just five occasions in the playoffs. Their 37.9 percent clip for the regular season was second only to the Utah Jazz by a fraction of a percent, but that figure has fallen below the Lakers to 35.5 percent in the playoffs. That is just an un-winnable discrepancy for Miami.
Anthony Davis is the best player in the series
Markieff Morris declared Davis “the best player in the world” after Game 1. Of course, he said the same of James in response to another question. As good as James was on Wednesday, falling one assist shy of a triple-double, Davis emerged from the Finals opener as the most dominant player on both ends of the floor.
That said, James remains the odds-on favorite to win Finals MVP, per BetMGM. You wonder what Davis would have to do during the remainder of this series to win the award, considering how much it means to James’ legacy. James is the maestro of these Lakers, and the intangibles that come with that will win over the hearts of some voters, but Davis has been the difference-maker, and that was on full display in Game 1.
It was Davis who anchored the first-quarter comeback with James on the bench and Davis again who first helped push the Lakers lead to double digits when James stole a few extra minutes of rest in the second.
During the regular season, the Lakers were outscored by a slim margin with James on the bench and Davis on the court. That figure has flipped in their favor by nine points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, per Cleaning the Glass. Likewise, the Lakers outscored foes by 9.8 points per 100 with Davis on the bench and James on the floor during the regular season, and that number is down to 3.4 in the playoffs. It may well require splitting hairs when it comes time to pick a Finals MVP, but Davis did more of the hair-splitting in Game 1. That both can now be considered the best in the world says all we need to know about the Lakers.
The Finals are already over
Miami declared both Adebayo and Dragic doubtful for Game 2 with a neck strain and a plantar tear, respectively, which would leave the Heat without their best defensive option against Davis and without a pick-and-roll partnership that has been their best offensive option in the playoffs. That is not great for a team that was already down double digits before Dragic checked out for good with 4:31 remaining in the first half.
Adebayo and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the players best built to match Davis’ length and athleticism, and there is now a real chance the Lakers could take a commanding Finals lead without facing either of them for more than 21 minutes. The Heat mainly played 6-foot-6 Iguodala, 36, as their backup center against Boston, and he could steal some small-ball minutes opposite Davis, as can Butler and Crowder, but that is a whole lot easier when that trio does not also have to worry about stopping James, a 6-foot-9 freight train.
Miami’s other center options include Olynyk and Meyers Leonard, both of whom can space the floor offensively, but neither of whom are equipped to slow Davis defensively. You wonder if Vogel will respond to Adebayo’s absence by removing Howard from the starting lineup, especially if Heat counterpart Erik Spoelstra is forced to plug Olynyk or Leonard in as the starting center. Either could exploit Howard on the perimeter, and the Lakers are better with Davis at center in their mammoth version of a small-ball lineup.
The Heat started Herro in place of Dragic in the third quarter of Game 1 to disastrous results. He was of no help on defense, and while his playmaking has improved considerably in Orlando, he has nowhere close to Dragic’s experience running an offense. The same can be said of Nunn, who started 67 games during the regular season and performed well off the bench in the second half of Game 1. But neither are Dragic, whose resurgence as a star-level competitor and primary option transformed the Heat into a contender.
Miami had trimmed its once-deep rotation down to seven players to finish off the Celtics, and now two of their best could potentially miss critical time in this series. Their margin of error was slim against Davis, James and the Lakers, and now it is down to none. Nothing short of miracle recoveries, another leap from Herro and a pantheon turn from Butler can prevent — at best — a gentleman’s sweep in the bubble Finals.
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