The Miami Heat fell to the Los Angeles Lakers 102-96 in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday, and now trail in the series 3-1, but it was not for lack of effort. Miami played its proverbial heart out. They were masterful defensively, from both an effort and execution standpoint.
The Heat battled LeBron James and Anthony Davis pre-catch and doubled hard, and sometimes late, after the catch. They recovered from those doubles and challenged shots. They stayed in front of penetrators for the most part. They communicated on switches and held their own on the boards, despite some timely offensive rebounds and second- and third-chance points for the Lakers that were pretty deflating.
Offensively, the Heat just didn't shoot it well enough from beyond the arc (11-for-32). Once the Lakers started going under on Jimmy Butler ball screens, the Heat had a lot of difficulty getting into the paint with enough leverage to create kick-out shot opportunities, and Davis, in addition to taking the one-on-one challenge of guarding Butler, protected the rim like a maniac when Miami did get in there. Ultimately, the Heat were swimming upstream most of the second half and just ran out of breath. A valiant effort, no question.
That said, there are no moral victories in the NBA Finals, and Miami had this game in its sights. A coach will always tell you a loss never comes down to one play or one possession, or even a few plays or possessions, but that's not exactly true. Yes, there's a lot that happens over a 48-minute basketball game, a lot of which we just discussed in the first three paragraphs.
But the bottom line is after all the dust settles, the margin in so many of these games is razor thin. A couple points here or there can be, and often is, the difference. In Game 4, there were three sequences in particular that swung the wrong direction for the Heat, who might well have been in a position to win this game and tie the series had these few seconds -- literally -- gone differently.
1. End-of-third-quarter disaster
Miami had the ball down by three, with the shot clock off, as the third quarter wound down. In this situation, above all else, you make certain you take the last shot. If you connect on the shot, you'll be down one or tied. If you miss, you go into the fourth quarter, at worst, still down three. Either way, the Lakers should not get another chance to score, under any circumstances, before the third-quarter buzzer sounds. Instead, this happens:
So let's go over this: Rather than bleeding the clock down, the Heat are pressing their luck from the start of this possession, passing the ball all over the court, risking a turnover or wild shot. Perhaps that can be justified by the fact that they did, for a moment, have a 5-on-4 advantage while Davis lagged behind after falling on his previous shot attempt. But once nothing materialized, Miami should have pulled the ball out and taken the last shot. Instead, Herro came sprinting off a screen and fired up a tough, contested 3-pointer with eight seconds still on the clock.
Herro missed, and then Bam Adebayo went recklessly crashing into Davis trying to get an offensive rebound he was never going to get. Davis gets knocked to the ground. The Lakers are in the bonus. Davis makes the two free throws, and suddenly Miami goes from being tied if that Herro shot goes in to being down five entering the fourth quarter. That is a huge swing, particularly at that juncture of the game.
2. Kelly Olynyk bail-out foul
The following clip shows what was, arguably, the Lakers' worst offensive possession of the game, and they came out of it with three points. First, Kendrick Nunn cuts off Rajon Rondo's drive, then Jimmy Butler cuts off LeBron, forcing a pass out from the baseline. Alex Caruso catches it and goes into a pick and roll, which Miami easily controls, and Caruso's pass bounces off Markieff Morris.
The shot clock is now winding down, and Morris has to go into a one-on-one pull-up 3-pointer with less than three seconds on the shot clock. It is an incredibly low-percentage shot, and I'll be damned if Olynyk doesn't take the bait on a desperate pump-fake and bail Morris out by fouling him on a 3-point attempt.
You can see the time and score here. We're under 10 minutes to play and the Heat likely go from down one -- as Morris probably misses that shot -- to down four when he sinks all three free throws. Don't get me started on what a bogus rule this is that a shooter can completely manipulate his motion to jump INTO the defender and get rewarded for it, but these are the rules. Olynyk knows the rules. And this was a major blunder. And another crucial three-point swing.
3. Butler misses, KCP makes
Nobody did anything wrong in this final sequence, but it was a giant swing no less. You hear the phrase "make or miss league" and this is what it means. On one end, the Heat are down two and have a shot to take the lead on a Butler 3-pointer with three minutes to play. Butler misses, and on the other end, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hits a 3-pointer from the corner to put the Lakers up four.
You can see the Lakers conceding that shot to Butler, whose inability to shoot from 3-point distance, for as great as he's playing, is becoming a problem as this series goes on. But Butler senses this is a pivotal moment for Miami, and he's right. So he goes against his normal shot discipline -- or hesitancy, if you prefer that classification -- and fires the 3-pointer, and if he makes it and the Heat take the lead with three minutes to play, this is a very different ballgame down the stretch. Instead, he misses, KCP hits, and we go from Miami up one to down five. That's another six-point swing.
Run the numbers on the first two sequences -- the end-of-third-quarter swing and the Olynyk foul -- and the Lakers gained, at a minimum, five points that they absolutely should not have scored. This final sequence was another six-point swing in the Lakers' direction. All told, that's a 11-point swing. The Heat lost by six. You do the math.