With 40 seconds left in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Anthony Davis took a deep 3-pointer. It was precisely the kind of shot the Miami Heat wanted him to take, but he fired it with confidence, just like he did when he broke the Denver Nuggets' hearts in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. When it fell through the net, the Los Angeles Lakers had a nine-point lead, which they would not relinquish.
The 102-96 victory on Tuesday puts the Lakers one win away from a championship. LeBron James repeatedly targeted Miami's weaker defenders in pick-and-rolls and finished with 28 points on 8-for-16 shooting, plus 12 rebounds and eight assists. Davis had 22 points on 8-for-16 shooting, with nine rebounds, four assists and four blocks. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 15 points on 6-for-12 shooting, including a crucial layup late in the fourth quarter.
Los Angeles took a 3-1 lead despite the return of Bam Adebayo. The Heat center had 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting and seven rebounds in 33 minutes in his first game back from a neck injury. Jimmy Butler had 22 points on 8-for-17 shooting, with eight assists, 10 rebounds and three steals.
Miami was down by two points with three minutes left, then Butler missed a 3 and Caldwell-Pope hit a 3 in transition. The Heat shot 11 for 32 from 3-point range, and will lament several of its misfires.
Game 5 is Friday. Here are three takeaways from Tuesday night's action:
1. Game changers
Through three quarters, the Heat were shooting miserably (22 for 57, and 6 for 25 from deep), but making up for it by getting to the free throw line (20 for 24) and sticking to their defensive game plan. Los Angeles had not done much damage in transition or on the offensive glass, and it had shot just 7 for 9 from the free throw line, but it was hitting 3s (12 for 28) and making Miami work. After a messy first quarter, the Lakers had cleaned up their turnover issues.
The fourth quarter, however, looked a lot different: The Heat went just 1 for 2 from the line, and the Lakers went 11 for 12 -- James made all seven of his attempts. Here he is breaking a tie with an and-1, in which he splits a pick-and-roll and scores while falling down:
On Los Angeles' next offensive possession, James missed a deep 3, but Rajon Rondo grabbed the long rebound and dished it to Caldwell-Pope, who found James under the basket. Another trip to the line:
Next Lakers possession: James misses another deep 3, Rondo goes for the offensive rebound in the same spot and Adebayo winds up tipping it to Caldwell-Pope. Adebayo plays perfect defense against Davis, forcing a missed turnaround, but James boxes out Crowder and gets back to the line:
Rondo had two points on 1-for-7 shooting, but once again ran the show when James went to the bench (Los Angeles won those minutes by eight points) and made timely plays. James had six turnovers, including five in the first half, but created tons of good looks out of high pick-and-rolls. While Davis' 3 over Adebayo was the dagger, Butler said it is a "backbreaker" when you get a stop but can't get the board in these situations.
"You talk about it, and then it happens," Butler said. "And it's crucial possessions late in the fourth. I've gotta get in there and help rebound. Everybody, we just gotta put our nose in that basketball and get it up out of there."
2. A defensive response
Butler and the Heat lit Los Angeles up in Game 3, and they were phenomenal on offense in their Game 2 loss, too. This was different.
The Lakers' big adjustment was putting Davis on Butler, two days after his 40-point tour de force. Butler was often able to get lesser defenders switched onto him, but the matchup undeniably made things more difficult. James used it as an opportunity to once again say that Davis should have won the Defensive Player of the Year award that went to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
"The guy can do everything defensively," James said. "Guard on the ball, guard the post, can slide his feet with guards, can contest, can body up with bigs. Need I say more?"
Miami's spacing took a hit with Adebayo's return. Los Angeles' length was apparent even when Butler and Tyler Herro (who scored 12 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter) were making plays, and this time the Lakers didn't let Kelly Olynyk burn them when he slipped screens. The Heat only had 18 assists, the only time in the playoffs that they had finished with fewer than 20.
"Obviously, Anthony's matchup on Butler was a big factor in our defensive efficiency," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. "Jimmy's so great, it's hard to even slow him down, but A.D. did a great job. It starts there, but you have to credit our guys' competitive spirit. They were flying around and just competing at an extremely high level at that end of the floor."
You also have to credit Vogel: Butler attacked Dwight Howard repeatedly at the beginning of the game, and Howard didn't get another stint. Markieff Morris took his place in the starting lineup in the second half.
The Heat scored 104.3 points per 100 possessions. Heading into the game, they were averaging 113.5 per 100 in the playoffs.
3. Every possession matters
Given that the Heat were in this until the final minute, a couple of self-inflicted wounds loom large.
Near the end of the third quarter, they got a stop against Davis and pushed the ball, trying to take advantage of a 5-on-4 with Davis on the ground. They couldn't get a quick bucket, though, and Davis got up and sprinted back. Instead of making sure they got the last shot, Herro took a 3 with eight seconds left on the shot clock. Adebayo crashed the glass and picked up his fourth foul, gifting Davis two free points at the line:
A couple minutes into the fourth quarter, it seemed like Miami had played a perfect defensive possession when Alex Caruso and Morris ran a pick-and-pop. Morris bobbled the pass, then sized up Olynyk one-on-one. Olynyk bit on his pump fake, gifting Morris three (!) free points:
That one was a bit of a controversial call, but Olynyk won't get much sympathy. He didn't have to leap at a stepback 3 from Morris like that.