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How Can Miami Get Back Into The NBA Finals? 

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): So almost an entire year after we started this bizarre season, we now potentially head into the final game of it. The Miami Heat, coming off a desperate Game 3 victory, were within striking distance of tying the series during a pivotal Game 4. But the Lakers closed the door late and now are one win away from winning their 17th championship.

I’d argue that Game 4 was pretty clearly the best game of the series thus far. What ultimately stood out to you all from it? And what, if anything, can Miami do to make one last run at this thing and hold off the Lakers?

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): The thing that stood out the most for me was watching how hard Miami had to work on both ends of the floor to keep it a close game. Especially in the first half, I thought they were playing really good defense but was thinking there was no way they could keep it up. I got tired just from watching them.

And then in the second half, I found a lot of Miami’s shot choices very, um … curious. It felt like time and time again, they were passing up pretty decent looks for more contested and off-balance shots. Credit to the Lakers defense, sure, but at times it really felt like the Heat were beating themselves.

dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): What stood out for me was L.A.’s defense. The Lakers were one of the best defensive teams in the league all season, and that’s continued in the playoffs. But Jimmy Butler tore them up pretty good in Game 3, and was doing the same early in Game 4 until L.A. changed some things up. He was 3 of 12 after the first quarter, and that mattered a whole lot.

dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The biggest thing to me throughout this whole series has been 3-point shooting. When we first found out this was the Finals matchup, I was suspicious of the Lakers’ shooting — and I had faith in Miami’s. But L.A. has made more threes in every game.

dubin: As for what they can do to win … call up the folks who digitally de-aged Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for “The Irishman,” and ask them about doing the same to Andre Iguodala and hope he can make things more difficult for LeBron James?

Or maybe cloning. Two Bam Adebayos would be good, too.

tchow: As for what Miami can do, I don’t really know. Is there someone on their roster who can give them similar offensive output as Duncan Robinson but not get picked on while they play defense?

dubin: I think that’s Tyler Herro, who gets picked on, too, but not as much.

“Duncan Robinson but not get picked on while they play defense” is basically Klay Thompson, right? If you assume that the player is actually a good defender, I mean.

chris.herring: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope wasn’t necessarily the MVP of Game 4. But I don’t think L.A. wins that game without him

tchow: Yeah, in Game 4, it felt like anytime Miami took the lead or tied it up, a KCP corner three stopped the momentum.

chris.herring: Someone tweeted at me asking whether LeBron had ever had a negative plus/minus in a Finals game, like he did last night, and still managed to win. Prompted me to look it up. It’s only the second time it’s happened in his career. Only other example was Game 6 against the Spurs in 2013, when he played with Miami.

dubin: KCP was awesome. I was shocked to see him pass the ball so well. He had five assists for only the fifth time in 88 games this season. Some of the passes were really nifty, too.

chris.herring: To win in the Finals with LeBron being somewhat mortal for large stretches, it requires a role guy to step up. And KCP did that. A couple of passes he threw were insane. I’d never seen him do that! The Lakers are now 12-1 this postseason when he has 10+ points.

dre.waters: Earlier when we were asking who would be the guy to step up for them, I thought it would have been Danny Green or Kyle Kuzma, but KCP has been consistent for them throughout the Finals. He’s scored double digits in all but one game.

tchow: I forgot who tweeted this last night, but I saw someone say they didn’t realize the Lakers had a Big 3, talking about KCP’s performance for them in these playoffs.

dubin: Speaking of the Lakers’ record when [X event] happens, I saw this wild stat from Nick Wright:

tchow: 106-1!

chris.herring: The Lakers become Mariano Rivera when they take a lead into the fourth.

dre.waters: That’s ridiculous!!

dubin: It conveniently cuts out the 2018-19 season, but that season was obviously an outlier in a lot of ways.

chris.herring: Let’s get back to something Jared and Tony brought up earlier: Miami’s offense, when trying to figure out how to poke holes in L.A.’s defense.

Miami has seemingly never had too big a problem finding a rhythm early in these games. In a couple of them, Games 1 and 3, they’ve even jumped out to quick 13-point leads. What happened in Game 4, though, seemed like a bit of a trump card. Throwing Anthony Davis on Butler had a huge impact on Butler struggling to score. Does Miami have an answer for that? Can they try putting Davis in screens to loosen things up there?

dubin: Not having Goran Dragić has really hampered the offense. It leaves them with really only two guys (Butler and Herro) who can create off the dribble and really only one (Herro) who consistently gets them out on the break. Dragić is their best guy in both of those areas.

From our Game 4 story on Wednesday, re: Chris’s question about Davis on Butler:

Prior to Game 4, Davis had defended Butler on 16 possessions during this series, according to Second Spectrum, and Butler didn’t score at all. In the first quarter of Game 4, things flipped, with Butler scoring 7 points on 11 half-court possessions during which he was defended by Davis.

But L.A. changed its defensive strategy against Butler during the final three quarters — even while still using Davis as his primary defender — and that change worked to great effect.

The Lakers decided that rather than primarily switching Butler’s pick and rolls, they would have Davis play things straight up, while also varying whether he fought over the screen or ducked under it. After the Heat got 9 points on the six opening-period Butler ball-screens that saw Davis switch, L.A. had him switch only twice the rest of the game. The 11 screen and rolls Davis defended the rest of the way (only two of which were switched) yielded just 6 Heat points, while Davis defended Butler on 36 total half-court possessions in the second through fourth quarters and kept him to only 4 points.

chris.herring: In other words, Davis and the Lakers are saying, “We can damn near taste the trophy. So we aren’t switching these screens, no matter what.”

dubin: Maybe having Butler attack without a screen (so there is nothing for Davis to go under) in isolation would be better, hoping that he can force some help and spray the ball out to shooters.

tchow: I think switching up how the defenders played Butler was visibly frustrating him last night. He never got comfortable coming off screens because he wasn’t sure if the switch was there or if Davis was going over or fighting through it. I would expect the Lakers to continue throwing different looks at Butler in Game 5 to try to close this out.

But to Jared’s point earlier, every time they went to Dragić standing by the sidelines in his mask and polo, I couldn’t help but think how this series might be different if he were healthy. I’m not saying they wouldn’t be in this 3-1 hole — that could still be the case. But Miami really missed him on the court, especially now with Bam healthy as well.

chris.herring: Yeah. The injury stuff has sucked.

dre.waters: Dragić’s ability to get into the paint would have definitely helped.

chris.herring: I’m not even totally, totally convinced Bam is healthy, either.

He’s out there, and he was good/impactful enough.

dubin: The video of Dragić wincing on the bench before the game, clearly wanting to play but also clearly not being physically up to it, made my heart hurt.

chris.herring: But Bam is their best passer and arguably their best playmaker, and he finished with only one assist — his lowest total since a game in January.

Herro can create things, but he’s also a rookie who understandably makes more mistakes than he does big shots. Miami took a number of bad shots late in the game, while within a possession or a two.

tchow: If I have to hear another announcer remind me that Herro is 20 years old one more f******* time …

dre.waters: LOL

chris.herring: But I think some of that is 1) having no choice but to rely on Herro, who’s young, and 2) the fear that they aren’t going to get better looks against a really tough defense, so Miami’s thinking, “Let me rush this open one that I have at this very moment — even if it’s too early.”

dre.waters: Even though they were hanging close through the game, it really never felt like the Heat found their rhythm in the second half.

dubin: Herro took some truly horrendous shots last night. According to Second Spectrum, his expected effective field-goal percentage for the game was 44.4, and it was 38.7 in quarters 2 through 4.

chris.herring: Wow, Jared. Those are easily worst-in-the-league-type numbers.

dubin: The thing is, though, I’m not entirely sure that was his fault. He was forced into doing way too much creating.

chris.herring: Yeah. You can’t really fault him, or pull him. There isn’t much alternative.

tchow: There are only so many tear-drop rainbow floaters you can make over Anthony Davis before the stats catch up with you, you know?

chris.herring: That’s part of the challenge with Bam: He’s fantastic at creating for other guys. But he struggles to create his own looks. So Herro kind of has to have the ball if Butler is being smothered by the DPOY runner-up

tchow: That’s why they need Goran! Sorry, I know. the point has been made.

dubin: Among 165 players who took at least 500 shots this regular season and postseason combined, the worst expected effective field-goal percentage mark belonged to DeMar DeRozan at … 44.4! So Chris is absolutely right about those being worst-in-the-league-type numbers.

chris.herring: LOL. If I’m being honest, I knew DeRozan was the guy who ranked worst from previous research I’ve done. I just didn’t want him to catch a stray!

dre.waters: I saw people asking why Kendrick Nunn was playing so many minutes last night, even though he was struggling offensively … it was definitely out of necessity.

chris.herring: Nunn’s offense was a struggle bus, too.

tchow: LOL, Andres, I’ll admit I definitely had that question last night too.

chris.herring: This isn’t an offense designed for folks to try and do as much on their own as they’ve had to do. Miami has really nice depth. But the injury bug bit them in the spot where they don’t have much.

dubin: Dragić’s restart performance is a huge part of why Miami is even in the Finals. It was probably the single biggest differentiator in the quality of the Heat’s pre-hiatus and bubble play. Him going down really was huge.

dre.waters: And Nunn was good at that for them during the regular season, but he’s never really had a chance to get into any type of flow at all through the playoffs. Then he was thrown in these huge moments and it hasn’t worked out so well.

dubin: Dragic provides way more off the bounce than even Nunn did during the regular season, though. Nunn averaged 12.5 drives per 100 possessions in the regular season compared with 20.6 for Dragic in the playoffs. Not having someone who bends the defense like that is so damaging for an offense. Dribble penetration from the perimeter just warps coverages differently than post-ups or wing isolations.

chris.herring: It shouldn’t totally be surprising this many years in, given what we’ve seen them do in the past. But watching LeBron and Davis take over late was something.

I was kind of confused by how often LeBron was settling for really long 3-pointers.

dubin: He hit two of them when I was saying to myself, “That’s a dumb shot.”

tchow: I think that it was in large part because of how Miami was playing the screens.

chris.herring: But between Davis just wreaking havoc, and Bron scoring 20 of his 28 after halftime, it just seems like they’re always destined to find a way.

Speaking of which: I’m already a little frustrated by what a Lakers win will do, as far as the narrative. Particularly as it relates to the idea of destiny. But it’s been pretty awesome seeing Davis do this. And LeBron still has so many moments that leave you in awe this late in his career.

tchow: Speaking of late in their careers, BIG shoutout to Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm, who just won their fourth WNBA title. Bird won the title in her 17th season. Maybe LeBron will follow suit on Friday?

dubin: Forget LeBron and MJ, Sue Bird is the GOAT.

dre.waters: ‼️

I’m not going to lie, when I saw that Bron had almost as many turnover as he did points in the first half, I was really questioning if they’d get a win last night.

dubin: Re: destiny, everybody making so much effort to find 8s and 24s and 81s everywhere is really making me queasy. Especially after I saw someone say on Tuesday that Vanessa Bryant has been saying she doesn’t want people sending her pictures of Kobe and Gigi all the time and whatnot.

chris.herring: Yep. I was avoiding specifics, but that’s exactly what I meant. I understand why it’s a narrative. I also understand LeBron, and his proximity to Kobe. But on the flip side: If the Lakers were to somehow blow this, no one would be talking about how they somehow dishonored Kobe.

tchow: That’s a very good point. And I’m with y’all. It’s already been exhausting — and it will be even more so if they win.

chris.herring: And while a lot of people will say a title honors him … I also think we can separate those two things. Though it wouldn’t surprise me if LeBron or members of the organization say he’s on their hearts.

dubin: I also feel like it kind of discredits the actual team a bit? I don’t know. It makes me feel weird.

Even weirder than the segment of Laker fans who for some reason care a whole lot about whether people feel this (potential) title is “earned.”

chris.herring: Idk. I’ve dealt with some substantial loss in my own life. I just see it as an unnecessary narrative. But certainly everyone is entitled to their opinion with it

Pivoting for a moment: Is there a debate with regards to Finals MVP, assuming Davis and LeBron play equally well to finish the series? Or is it LeBron going away?

tchow: Oooooooooh, good question. My knee-jerk reaction was gonna be “of course it’s LeBron,” but wait a minute …

dubin: Oh, this is fun! I kind of think it should be Davis going away, but that LeBron might win it anyway.

dre.waters: Personally, I’d lean Davis

tchow: Given that we are FiveThirtyEight, wHaT dO tHe StAts SaY?

dubin: I think it’s pretty clear that LeBron is the best player in the series, but I also think it’s pretty clear that Davis has had the most impact on this series.

dre.waters: That’s why I’d say Davis too, Jared.

chris.herring: Yeah. I don’t know who I’d go with yet. But to me, watching Davis shut down Butler, while just one game earlier, LeBron was handing Butler off on soft switches while dude went off for a 40-point triple-double? It’s certainly not cut and dry to me. Davis has absolutely had a bigger impact at times in this series.

Dubin: It’s all so intertwined, though, because LeBron being LeBron also allows Davis to do so much of what he does.

tchow: I’m gonna go with Tyler Herro.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.