The Miami Heat’s 115-104 Game 4 win over the Los Angeles Lakers probably shouldn’t have surprised us as much as it did. Yes, Miami was missing Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic and had been decimated the previous two games, but the team that’s down 2-0 is always going to play a lot harder. Miami came out looking for blood, and just as importantly, the Lakers came out flat.
Still legitimately shocking, however, is Jimmy Butler’s performance, not because Butler isn’t a fantastic player, but because of just how historically great he was. Butler scored 40 points on 14-of-20 shooting, went 12-for-14 from the free throw line and added 11 rebounds, 13 assists, two steals and two blocks. He joins Jerry West and LeBron James as the only players to have a 40-point triple-double in the Finals.
Butler imposed his will on the game as he usually does, but while he was incredible, the Lakers have to take accountability for the role their lack of effort and attention to detail played in Butler’s explosion. Let’s take a look at how Butler carved up Los Angeles' defense and how the Lakers may be able to adjust.
With a key ball-handler missing in Dragic, the Heat put the ball in Butler’s hands and let him make all the decisions. NBA.com’s John Schuhmann noted that Butler had the ball for 11.7 minutes in Game 3, more than double his postseason average of 5.6. The Heat used all that time to get Butler into matchups he could use to attack the rim.
Butler shot 9-of-11 in the paint by repeatedly punishing the Lakers for switching smaller players onto him. Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso are too small to affect Butler once he gets them on his hip.
The Lakers were too lazy, switching too often when it wasn’t necessary and not offering help to clearly overmatched defenders. There is no reason Butler should have these opportunities to back down smaller defenders without seeing another body around the rim.
Perhaps Butler’s best ability is his nose for drawing fouls, and the Lakers made it too easy for him with their matchups. In each of the plays below, Butler puts his body into the defender to bully his way to the rim and force a choice between fouling and allowing an easy layup.
The Heat also used Butler’s on-ball dominance to create advantages in other areas. Butler displayed a concerted effort to attack one-on-one on the break, and the Lakers helped him in this endeavor with spotty transition defense and sloppy live-ball turnovers.
Adebayo has been so effective throughout the playoffs at running dribble handoff action with Miami’s shooters. Without his services, Miami put Butler in the role. His playmaking ability kept the Lakers from being able to sell out on the Heat’s shooters, opening up 3-point looks.
These are the mistakes of a team up 2-0. It’s natural that the Lakers would bring less intensity, but now that the Heat have thrown a punch, Los Angeles can’t afford to keep playing like that.
The Lakers' response should start with keeping big defenders on Butler at all times. The only occasions when Butler looked even slightly bottled up were against James, Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris. They have the strength to keep Butler from getting to whatever spot he wants and the length to bother his shots.
Butler also showed he could be affected by length at the rim. He passed up a lot of layups to chuck overhead passes back out to the 3-point line when he was met by Anthony Davis or Dwight Howard, and while it created some open looks, it also led to live-ball turnovers and transition opportunities for the Lakers. This is something Los Angeles' defenders can anticipate and pounce on.
The effect of defender size also showed itself in Butler’s playmaking for others. You can see in the first two plays below that when Butler has free sight lines, he can make some great passes for easy layups. In the final play, on the other hand, the Lakers involved in the action are Morris (6′8), Kuzma (6′8) and Davis (6′10), and the combined length turns into a steal and putback dunk for Davis.
These aren’t definitive answers. Butler is a great player for a reason; he torched bigger defenders, too. He may be too strong for the Lakers' guards, but he’s too quick and crafty for most of the Lakers' big wings. Look at how he gets Kuzma up in the air with pump fakes and uses his quickness advantage to create space against Morris.
That is why James needs to be the primary defender on Butler and why he needs to fight through screens and movement to stay with him: No one else on the Lakers is well-prepared to handle that assignment. There are no conditioning excuses when it comes to the NBA Finals — after all, Butler played 46 minutes in Game 3 as the top option on James and turned in one of the best offensive performances in Finals history.
It’s time for James to match that effort. If the Lakers supplement that with other big matchups on Butler, clean up their transition defense and implement a more decisive scheme against the dribble handoffs, Los Angeles should be able to limit Butler enough to win this series handily.