In Game 3 of the 2020 NBA Finals, with the Miami Heat down 0-2 and their championship hopes crumbling, Jimmy Butler turned in the most impressive performance of his career: a 40-point, 11-rebound, 13-assist triple-double in which he made 70 percent of his shots and defended LeBron James on more plays than any other player guarded anybody else. It yielded the highest individual game score in Heat Finals history and the second highest overall in any Finals game ever. This was history.
But in order to pull off the impossible, Butler had to impersonate LeBron in one very specific way: hunting certain matchups. For the duration of a back-and-forth fourth quarter, the five-time All-Star ventured outside Miami’s egalitarian offense to exploit favorable matchups that he could sink his teeth into. Doing this often meant a teammate would give him a ball screen. In the series’ first two games, Butler had a player set a ball screen for him six times in the fourth quarter. In the fourth quarter of Game 3, it was nearly every play.
With LeBron as Butler’s primary defender, the Heat set screen after screen and forced switch after switch until their best player was face-to-face with a defender he could annihilate. Whether it was Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris, Rajon Rondo or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Butler tortured his new defender in several big spots, as LeBron called out the switch instead of fighting through screens and sticking with the original assignment.
According to Second Spectrum, Butler generated 1.44 points per possession when LeBron obliged to switch off of him. Butler hulked up in the post and on drives to the basket, drawing a series of back-breaking fouls to complement the midrange pull-ups that pierced L.A.’s previously rock-solid defense. He also unleashed a flurry of pinpoint passes to teammates who benefited from their own mismatch or the attention Butler drew. If anyone asks, “How did Jimmy take over the game without attempting a single three?” plays like this are the answer:
The performance was iconic, doubly so thanks to the ironic subtext: Butler out LeBroned LeBron by using a tactic no player embraces more than the 35-year-old. Across these entire playoffs, James has had a guard set a screen for him 182 times (or 14.1 picks per 100 possessions). Kemba Walker and Kawhi Leonard rank second and third in this category, and they have a combined 147 screens between them. (Butler is fourth, with 69.)
It’s a simple yet brilliant offensive maneuver that lends credence to LeBron’s status as the NBA’s resident chess master. When a Laker guard sets a screen for LeBron, opposing teams are forced to pick their poison: James’s threat as a scorer vs. a facilitator. We saw the strategy on repeat in Game 1, when James lured Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragić into situations they simply weren’t used to dealing with. The Heat struggled with a blend of switches and soft hedges that let James feast in ways he could not have if Butler, Andre Iguodala or Bam Adebayo were on him instead.
According to Second Spectrum, James received 29 ball screens in Game 1, and 18 of them were set by a guard. To put this number in context, Giannis Antetokounmpo received eight ball screens from a guard during Milwaukee’s entire second-round series against Miami. Boston’s Jayson Tatum did it 26 times, or 5.1 picks per 100 possessions, against the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, LeBron logged 24.7 picks per 100 possessions with a guard, and through three games in the Finals, he sits at 21 — about seven more picks per 100 possessions than we saw from him in each of the previous two rounds.
James has produced 1.33 points per possession during these playoffs whenever he is screened by a guard, and on the 41 plays when defenders hedged or showed to avoid an outright switch, the Lakers have scored a whopping 1.6 points per possession. That number leaps up to 1.7 points per possession against Miami, which is catastrophic. But the defensive strategy isn’t without merit because when executed properly (much easier said than done!), it stifles any north-south progress for the ballhandler while keeping Butler on James as the shot clock winds down. In watching film, I found instances when the Heat have actually done a decent job jumping out at LeBron before recovering back to their own assignment. Even then, though, they’ve still been vulnerable to the type of fire alarm chaos that takes over when an offense gets lucky on a broken play.
More often than not, James has been able to turn the corner on Robinson or Herro and get downhill with zero bodies in his path, time his own pull-up three or even split the defense and leave it in tatters.
And watch what happens on the back line here between Kelly Olynyk and a frantic Robinson, who isn’t sure exactly where he’s supposed to go after Butler yells at him to abandon the switch.
If they want to force a Game 6, Miami needs to do a much better job executing this scheme. At the same time, James computes everything in front of his eyes faster than any defense can react. He poses the constant threat of turning the narrowest opening into a canyon of opportunity, which can make even the most disciplined defensive response end in disappointment.
Here’s Robinson scurrying back to Danny Green and running him off the 3-point line, which is generally the right idea. But the margin for error is so slim. Jae Crowder’s overhelp on the drive cracks open a look for Anthony Davis at the top of the key.
So why even put yourself in a rotation to begin with? When a smaller player switches onto LeBron, help defenders dramatically pack the paint behind him and ostensibly construct a road block for the inevitable Mack truck drive towards the rim. No player in NBA history has created more stress in those situations; even if help is there early, it opens up shooters on the perimeter for wide-open looks. And if the help isn’t there, well, see below: when Robinson simply switches onto LeBron, he becomes a sneaker in an empty dryer.
In Game 2, Miami slowed this strategy down by going zone on 67 possessions — 15 more possessions than they had in any one game during this playoff run. But in Game 3, as Erik Spoelstra shifted back to man-to-man (they were only in a zone on seven possessions), LeBron embraced the approach even more, using a guard to screen for him 22 times — his highest postseason count since at least 2014 that wasn’t against the Golden State Warriors. By and large it was successful, bearing 1.53 points per possession. Here’s another example of him drawing Robinson to the point of attack, splitting the screen because he knows the Heat won’t switch, forcing Olynyk to take one step into the paint before firing a laser to Morris in the corner.
Again, this isn’t new. It was immortalized as a punishing tactic during James’s triumphant 2016 Finals victory against Steph Curry and the Warriors. If you’re LeBron, hunting the weak makes sense. But in this series, he’s accepted a screen from a guard so often that he’s nearly pushed the volume to a playoff-career-high rate, and he’s never seen it manufacture better offense in the playoffs.
This strategy for LeBron and the Lakers isn’t necessarily a last resort — as it was for Butler and Miami — but it might be more valuable as something to ease into over the course of a game, rather than using that scheme right from the jump. The action is choppy and disruptive, not just to the opposing defense but also to L.A.’s own offensive flow. To put it differently, it’s why boxers lead with the jab and don’t start their fights throwing haymakers.
One negative side effect of guards screening for LeBron in Game 3 was that the action removed Davis, who took one shot in the entire fourth quarter, from the offense. Miami’s ability to switch the LeBron-Davis pick-and-roll has all but neutralized its threat — which is partially why Iguodala, Crowder and Solomon Hill have spent time on Davis so far. As guards scamper up to set a screen for LeBron, Davis has all-too-often transformed into a very tall bar stool.
In general, most teams and players don’t reach for this scalpel so soon and so often, knowing it takes a half-court offense out of its normal rhythm and might result in a series of isolation chances that stagnates everybody else. It also gives the opponent an idea of how to defend it later on in more important moments. But LeBron is special. His uniquely broad aptitude allows him not only to overpower smaller defenders who switch, but also to prey on an opponent who’s been pressed into an uncomfortable rotation. It’s a not-so-secret weapon that keeps coaches up at night and dictates who can or can’t stay on the floor. Now, with Butler, James is seeing the same strategy used against his own team.
Switching is exactly what both offenses want. If Butler looks to get himself going in the same way during Game 4, expect the Lakers to show and recover just like the Heat have against LeBron. Though again, that strategy is much easier said than done — even if Butler isn’t much of a threat to pull up from three, he’s tenacious and swift enough to time his drives for extensive damage in the paint.
Either way, as the Finals move forward, Butler’s willingness and ability to embrace the exact same strategy that makes LeBron unstoppable could close the gap between these two remarkable teams.
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