When LeBron James played for the Miami Heat, they called them skirmishes. A few stops, a few dunks in transition and a game changes. It happens quickly and without warning, like an earthquake. James' team is energized, the opponent demoralized.
To beat a James-led team typically requires discipline. Mistakes on the offensive end turn into easy baskets on the other end, slumped shoulders and pointed fingers. In Game 6 of the 2020 NBA Finals, the Heat were on the wrong end of the skirmish.
The Los Angeles Lakers' lead was just four points with a minute and a half left in the first quarter. Less than a minute into the second, it was 11, and Miami was starting to wear down. The skirmish, though, began in earnest when Anthony Davis rejected a Kendrick Nunn layup four and a half minutes before halftime. The block led to an absurd and-1 from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the start of an 18-2 run that gave the Lakers a 30-point lead.
All season, Los Angeles feasted on live-ball turnovers. To clinch the championship on Sunday, it put Alex Caruso in the starting lineup, took Dwight Howard out of the rotation and dialed up its defensive pressure. Miami's offense, so beautiful at its best, suddenly appeared stagnant, a result of the Lakers' disruptive defense as much as its own tired legs. The Heat turned the ball over on more than a fifth of their first-half possessions, and whenever they missed around the rim, Los Angeles raced down the court to punish them.
Caruso called it "the epitome of Lakers basketball." Kyle Kuzma described it as "crazy," "unbelievable" and "probably the most we've ever been locked in during the season."
"We were all over the place," Los Angeles coach Frank Vogel said. "We executed our coverages perfectly. And we did it with energy and passion and active hands, and we rebounded the basketball. And that controlled the whole game because, with our ability on the break, we're getting stops without fouling, other teams had no chance with us getting out on the break."
More than a full calendar year ago, Vogel told the Lakers he wanted them to be the most physical team in the NBA. They defined themselves with their defense, a stark contrast to any of James' teams since he left Miami in 2014 -- throughout the regular season, they were communicative, connected and committed to getting stops, and teams that failed to sprint back against them got burned. They finished third in defensive rating and third in opponent turnover rate, and, according to Cleaning The Glass, first in transition offense.
Some foolish people thought Los Angeles wouldn't even make it to the Finals. Its Achilles heel was supposed to be halfcourt offense, since the Lakers finished 19th in that category in the regular season. It wasn't just that their shooting was suspect and their perimeter playmaking fell almost entirely to James and Rajon Rondo, it was that their offense didn't sing the way the most aesthetically pleasing ones do. Los Angeles didn't seamlessly flow from one action to another like its Finals opponent. It didn't cause chaos and confusion with off-ball movement. The Lakers could manufacture advantages and open shots against set defenses, but they didn't make it look easy.
Los Angeles' solution to this was simple: Make life completely miserable for the opposing offense, and run like hell.
Unlike their playoff opponents, the Lakers didn't have a guard who could routinely make 35-foot pull-ups or step-back threes, nor did they have a point-center picking teams apart. Their halfcourt offense improved in the playoffs, but even in the Finals it sometimes got stilted. It wasn't exactly unpredictable, and it did not reflect a larger trend about where the NBA is going.
Los Angeles' defense, however, does. It would not have advanced past the second round if it did not bench its traditional bigs and play Davis exclusively at center, where he is as disruptive a force as there is in the league, the same move Vogel made in Game 6 of the Finals. The Lakers didn't have to look like the Heat because they could prevent the Heat from looking like the Heat. All season long, they had been shrinking the floor, shuttering passing lanes and making stars uncomfortable. They knew exactly who they were.
"You can have a talented team, even a defensive-talented team, but if everybody is not working together and everybody is not bought in and seeing the value of being able to suffocate an opponent and take away their strength, you're not going to reach that level," Vogel said. "But our guys saw the value very early on. They bought in."
Sunday's second-quarter skirmish was part of a 41-15 run that started late in the first quarter. If the onslaught felt familiar, it was because the Lakers did something similar in Game 1. Miami started the series in rhythm and took an early lead, but everything flipped about six minutes in. Davis shifted to center, and the Lakers ended the first quarter on a 19-3 run that turned into a preposterous 75-30 sprint.
Afterward, James said they did it by playing more physically and with more attention to detail.
"We started to play to our capabilities," he said. "We started flying around. We started getting defensive stops."
Story of the season.