What appeared to be a likely sweep entering Sunday night is now a competitive series, with Jimmy Butler leading the way as an underdog Heat squad looks to pull off one of the greatest Finals upsets in recent memory.
Let’s not understate the task ahead. Miami still trails a team with two first-team All-NBA talents, one of whom is perhaps the greatest player of all-time. The other wreaked absolute havoc at the rim through the first two games, channeling prime Shaq with his dominance of the paint. LeBron James and the Lakers aren’t in trouble, no matter what Jimmy Butler says.
We shouldn’t completely write off the Heat entering Game 4 on Tuesday night. Erik Spoelstra’s team is tough as nails, and they’re led by a truly innovative head coach. The Heat have a max player of their own, and they sport a pair of emerging All-Stars to boot. Miami faces an uphill climb, but not an impossible one.
So what do the Heat have to do to even the series on Tuesday? Let’s examine three keys to victory.
Jimmy Drives the Bus
Miami’s offense is ideally an egalitarian one, predicated on motion, quick passing and a collective unselfishness. The Heat looked like the mid-2010s Spurs at their best this season, pinging the ball around the perimeter to a cadre of open shooters. Bam Adebayo’s emerging brilliance as an offensive fulcrum opened the Heat attack, and Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro feasted on clean looks. That hasn’t been the case against the Lakers.
Injuries to Adebayo and Goran Dragic have forced Miami to alter its attack. Game 2 still featured many of the Heat’s pet sets as though Adebayo was still present, and the results were predictably disappointing. The lack of gravity in the middle allowed the Lakers to swarm Robinson and Herro. Miami’s dearth of secondary ball-handlers was exposed. The injuries took an obvious toll.
Butler posted a solid stat line in Game 2 despite Miami’s blowout loss. He was downright brilliant in Game 3. The Marquette product bruised his way into the lane time and again on Sunday night, channeling Dwyane Wade with his continued commitment to driving downhill. Butler is a relentless worker. He’s a true leading man. With a depleted roster, Butler put his head down and hit 14 of 20 shots, adding 14 free-throw attempts in the process. It wasn’t even pick-and-roll that necessarily freed Butler. He often took advantage of mismatches in transition, and he had little problem burrowing his way into the lane against Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma. It may not be pretty, but at this point, Butler's solo act is really the Heat's only option. A performance like Wade in 2006 is necessary for Miami to hang its fourth banner. Sunday night was a good start.
Defend Davis at All Costs
Spoelstra’s vaunted zone stymied the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, but it looked absolutely dreadful early in the Finals against the Lakers. Miami’s 2–1–2 look allowed the Lakers to consistently find the hole in the middle of the zone, often springing James to roll downhill with little resistance. The defense left Miami with a devil’s bargain. Hold position on the baseline, and James will score with ease. Step up against the future Hall-of-Famer, and a lob to Anthony Davis is on the way. Los Angeles invited the zone with relative glee in the series’s first two games.
A minor tweak helped swing the contest in Game 3. Miami still used plenty of zone, but they opted to pack the paint, often using a 3–2 zone to place plenty of bodies on Anthony Davis. The Heat fronted Davis and then provided help on the back side, daring the Lakers’ role players to beat them from three. Miami’s gamble paid off. Davis took just nine shots en route to 15 points. Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo went 3-21 from the field. You can’t stop everything against Los Angeles. Daring the non-superstars to beat you is really the only hope. Quieting Davis remains the key to the series for Miami.
Big Men Step Up
Perhaps this isn’t exactly what you want your season to hinge on if you’re a Heat fan, but Miami’s depleted center rotation is quite important if Adebayo misses Game 3. Andre Iguodala hasn’t found the fountain of youth and Solomon Hill isn't quite playable, leaving Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard as two necessary cogs in the rotation. The results have been relatively encouraging thus far.
Leonard posted a plus-13 in under 13 minutes in Game 3, while Olynyk scored 17 points with a trio of threes. It’s no secret why the two centers posted solid nights. Olynyk and Leonard provide solid spacing from beyond the arc, and Olynyk in particular can do damage against Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris. Butler and Olynyk have solid chemistry in their two-man dance, averaging 122.1 points per 100 possessions together in the Finals. The Heat can still toe the line between spacing the floor and providing adequate size on the other end. Continued strong play from their centers is necessary for Spoelstra to pull off the juggling act.