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Jimmy Butler Started Hot. Then The Lakers Cooled Him Down.

Coming off a masterful Game 3 performance that vaulted the Miami Heat back into the NBA Finals, Jimmy Butler had it going again early on in Game 4. He was aggressive out of the gate, knocking down all five of his first-quarter shots and collecting 11 points, two rebounds and two assists.

What made Butler’s early game performance all the more remarkable is that the majority of his production came while he was being defended by Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Anthony Davis. 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.

Of course, Davis’s Game 4 impact was not limited to the job he did slowing down Butler. The Lakers’ star big man had 4 points, three rebounds, two assists and a block in the first quarter, helping his team weather Butler’s hot start and maintain the lead after one period. He finished the evening with 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists, a steal and four blocks — the type of stat line that has become typical for him during this playoff run.

Davis’s postseason averages of 28.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game are pretty spectacular. He’s one of just seven players in league history to exceed 28-9-3-1-1 during a particular playoff run, along with LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Durant, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone. Add in the requirement of shooting both 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc (on multiple attempts per game), though, and the list narrows to just Davis and James.

After struggling quite a bit in Game 3, Davis wasn’t overly dominant in Game 4, but his biggest plays came at incredibly opportune moments. Consider, for example, the sequence toward the end of the game when Davis hit the game-sealing 3-pointer with a defender in his grill, then snuffed out whatever embers of hope the Heat had remaining by swatting Butler’s driving layup attempt a couple of possessions later.

Davis wasn’t alone in making his most significant contributions in important moments. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — who had himself a Zoom podium game — actually led the Lakers in scoring during the opening stanza, when Butler seemingly couldn’t be stopped. KCP made only two more baskets the rest of the way, but one was arguably the most important shot of the game.

With the Heat trailing by 2, Butler took a screen from the back-from-injury Bam Adebayo and lined up a wide-open corner three to take the lead, only to see it rim out and fall into the hands of James … who promptly pushed the ball up the floor, drew a crowd of three defenders and calmly kicked it to KCP for a mirror-image corner trey of the one Butler just missed, only this one ripped through the net.

Instead of leading by 1, the Heat trailed by 5, and they never got within a possession of the Lakers the rest of the way.

Caldwell-Pope’s early shooting allowed him the opportunity to make plays for his teammates, as well. He ended up dishing out five assists, just the fifth time in 88 games this season (and 32nd time in 561 career games) he has dimed up his teammates for five or more buckets. By knocking down three shots from beyond the arc in addition to those five assists, Caldwell-Pope joined an exclusive list.

Prior to last night, there were only 50 instances of a player knocking down at least three 3-pointers and dishing out at least five assists in an NBA Finals game since 2007, when LeBron made his first trip to the championship series. James himself was responsible for 10 of those games, but his teammates were responsible for just three. Caldwell-Pope’s Game 4 performance makes it four.

Other supporting players also made outsize contributions. The Lakers bench outscored Miami’s subs 27-13, outrebounded them 14-7 and outassisted them 7-0. Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma each hit a couple of threes. Alex Caruso played his usual stellar defense. And Rajon Rondo, while just 1 of 7 from the field, chipped in with seven rebounds and five assists.

It was a game that exemplified why the Lakers find themselves one win away from adding a 17th banner to the rafters at the Staples Center. L.A. got the customary star-level performances from Davis and James, while the supporting cast members knocked down the open shots created for them and defended their collective butt off. It’s a formula that James’s teams have followed for the past decade, usually with great success — the kind of success the Lakers envisioned when they turned over much of their roster in an attempt to microwave a title by jumping from outside of the playoff picture to the inner circle of contenders. They now stand on the verge of making that dream a reality.

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

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