In many ways, the Heat played the kind of game they needed to in order to win Tuesday’s pivotal Game 4 of the Finals. The Lakers scored only 34 points in the paint, and only seven fastbreak points, far below their averages headed into this series. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were both ineffective for significant stretches of the game. (James and Davis scored only 16 points combined in the first half, though they matched that total in the fourth.) Bam Adebayo returned and didn’t look slowed down by his neck injury. And after scoring 22 points combined in the Games 1–3, Duncan Robinson scored 17 alone in Game 4. So how did Miami lose? The supporting casts tell the story.
It can be too reductive to immediately look at the three-point column on the box score of a playoff game and say that was the difference in the game. The Lakers’ didn’t have a Herculean effort from beyond the arc in Game 4, and while outshooting the Heat from distance—as they have for the balance of the series—is notable, it’s the timeliness of Los Angeles’s makes that are particularly backbreaking for Miami.
For example, in the second quarter, rookie Tyler Herro missed a wide-open three from the left wing with 40 seconds left in the half that would have given his team a two-point lead. On the other end of the floor, Alex Caruso, nowhere near the shooter Herro is, nailed a three despite a more legitimate closeout. (Herro would also miss a good look late in the third that resulted in a loose-ball foul on Adebayo that sent Davis to the line.) In the most glaring example of a swing situation, Jimmy Butler—after having been slowed down offensively for most of the night—had the ball with Rajon Rondo guarding him with just over three minutes left in the fourth and Miami down two. Butler somewhat bafflingly called for a screen, which brought LeBron into the action. James dropped back toward the paint, daring Jimmy to shoot from the outside. Butler obliged, missing a three that directly led to a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope corner three on the other end. Instead of a one-point lead, Miami was now losing by five.
Anybody can drive themselves crazy cherry-picking plays from a playoff game and holding them up as the reason for a loss. But in Game 4 particularly, Miami was stellar on the macro issues. Davis attempted only five shots in the paint. The rebounding numbers were practically identical to Game 3. And after posting an offensive rating over 120 in Games 1 and 2, the Lakers have an offensive efficiency of only 107.3 in Games 3 and 4, much lower than the 115.6 mark they came into the Finals with. The Heat were beat up inside in the first two games of the Finals, with no answers for LA’s length and a failing zone defense.
Miami has been able to flip the script in that regard over the last two contests. The man defense has been effective in forcing the Lakers’ supporting cast to make plays. Davis has been continuously pushed out of favorable position in the post and coerced into taking difficult shots. (AD hit only 3-of-11 field goals outside of the paint Tuesday.) And while LeBron is still LeBron, creating turnovers as he figures out coverages is how the Heat have to keep it close.
The difference in Game 4 was how the Lakers’ role players capitalized when the Heat defense sold out on the stars. Miami can’t say the same. For all his struggles scoring, Davis was a menace on the other end of the floor. His one-on-one defense on Butler stymied the Heat’s offense. Herro scored 12 points in the fourth, in large part because Miami had no choice but to run the offense through him with Davis practically erasing Butler from the game.
But it was too little, too late from Herro, who was a team-worst minus-13 on the night. For every Rajon Rondo offensive rebound or Markieff Morris three-point shooting foul, there was a Herro offensive foul or Kendrick Nunn drive to nowhere. The margins are razor thin in games this close, and Miami’s biggest issue in Game 4 was the Lakers were simply better in the one place the Heat were supposed to have an advantage: depth. LA’s bench out scored Miami’s, and the Heat’s shooters—despite some good looks—were played to a standstill. Even with doing so much else right, the Heat couldn’t afford to lose those battles Tuesday.
Miami now faces a daunting 3–1 deficit after losing a very winnable game. If Goran Dragic returns—which seems like a longshot at best—maybe he can be a difference maker by simply soaking up some of the ineffective minutes from Herro and Nunn. While the Lakers got star turns from their elite talents in the fourth, James and Davis didn’t dominate Game 4 like they did Games 1 and 2. Ultimately, L.A. won because it swung the game in the moments its All-Star duo weren’t at their best. The Heat can do almost everything right, but with an undermanned roster going against a team with two top-five talents, almost isn’t good enough.