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Wednesday, October 07, 2020

LeBron Dominates in Second Half as Lakers Take 3-1 Lead

When LeBron James is focused and attacks the hoop, he is still the best player in the NBA. He showed that again in the second half of game four of the NBA Finals, powering the L.A. Lakers to a 102-96 victory over the Miami Heat and a 3-1 series lead. James had 20 points and nine rebounds in the second half, including 11 points and five rebounds in the fourth quarter. With James setting the tone, the Lakers pounded the smaller Heat in the fourth quarter, shooting 5-6 on two pointers and 11-12 on free throws. James led both teams in scoring (28 points) and rebounds (12) while shooting 8-16 from the field and dishing for a team-high eight assists. James had a -2 plus/minus number, but this game is an example of why plus/minus can be deceptive in a small sample size; James was without question the best player on the court when it mattered most, and he took over as the Lakers built a 100-91 lead after a Jimmy Butler drive tied the score at 83.

James had five turnovers in the first half, but just one turnover in the second half. James was out of sync during the first half. Anyone could see it, and ABC's Jeff Van Gundy mentioned it during the telecast. If James had not lifted his game, this series would likely be 2-2 now--but James played up to his potential, and the Lakers are one win away from capturing the NBA title. 

Anthony Davis also had a subpar first half by his standards (eight points, though he did have six rebounds and three assists) but he scored 14 second half points, including the three pointer that put the Lakers up 100-91 with :39.5 remaining, a shot that most likely not only clinched this game but the series as well; only one team has won the NBA Finals after trailing 3-1, and that team featured James (the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, who defeated the Golden State Warriors). Davis finished with 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and four blocked shots. He shot 8-16 from the field, and had a game-high +17 plus/minus number. 

The Lakers received key contributions from their role players. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope paced the Lakers in scoring during the first half (10 points) as they led 49-47 at halftime. He ended up with 15 points on 6-12 field goal shooting, plus five assists. He hit a three pointer and a driving layup on consecutive fourth quarter possessions to push the Lakers' lead to 95-88. Danny Green added 10 points on 4-8 field goal shooting. Rajon Rondo only scored two points on 1-7 field goal shooting but he was third on the team in rebounds (seven) and tied with Caldwell-Pope for second in assists (five). 

Jimmy Butler played well, but the Heat needed for him to be great. Butler led the Heat in scoring (22 points), rebounds (10), and assists (nine), but he has an odd tendency to turn down open shots in the paint and pass to his teammates. Unselfishness is fine to a point, but sometimes the best player has an obligation to force the action, which can not only lead to scores but also induce the defense to "tilt" in a way that creates easier shots for that player's teammates.  

The Heat received a lift from the return of injured starting center Bam Adebayo. He scored 15 points and had seven rebounds. Adebayo played with high energy and posted a +3 plus/minus number but he did not have the overall impact that he did during the Eastern Conference Finals. Early in the game, the Heat played very actively, forcing turnovers and making it hard for the Lakers to feed the ball to Davis in the post.

Tyler Herro (21 points) and Duncan Robinson (17 points) were the Heat's only other double figure scorers, but they probably gave up at least as many points on defense as they scored on offense; the Lakers were openly "hunting" to create switches involving either guard down the stretch. Even though the injured Goran Dragic was the Heat's leading playoff scorer heading into this series, the team may miss his defense even more than his offense. 

Neither team led by more than seven points until Davis hit the clinching three pointer, but once James decided to attack the hoop it was a wrap. James scored on a drive, was fouled, and made the free throw to put the Lakers up 86-83 with 6:08 remaining in the fourth quarter. James scored the Lakers' next four points on free throws, and when the defense crowded him on a drive he dished to Caldwell-Pope for a right corner three pointer at the 2:58 mark that extended the Lakers' lead to 93-88. The Lakers' half court set that involves James wandering around aimlessly without the ball behind the three point line is puzzling to watch, but when James drives to score (and passes only if a second defender blocks his path) he becomes almost impossible to stop.

Is James held to an unreasonably high standard, or is it appropriate to expect him to drive to the hoop more often because he is an unstoppable force in the paint? I think that all players should maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Driving to the hoop requires physical, mental, and emotional stamina, but there is no shortcut to achieving and sustaining greatness. Every jump shot that James shoots--particularly jump shots from further than 15-18 feet--is a victory for the defense, even if James connects; every James drive bends, distorts, and ultimately destroys the defense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 AM



At Wednesday, October 07, 2020 8:42:00 AM, Blogger RFU said...

Great recap.

More so than previous years, it appears to me that LeBron's performance seems to fluctuate more within games. As you pointed out, the drive takes stamina so I do wonder whether age is starting to catch up to James albeit slowly. From Lebron's perspective, the bubble may have already been beneficial since he does not need to travel at all between games, so I do wonder how he will look next year in the playoffs.

At Wednesday, October 07, 2020 11:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you.

I agree that the bubble has benefited James--not only because of not having to travel, but also because James had several months off to rejuvenate his body before the season resumed, and because two of the Lakers' main rivals lost earlier in the playoffs, perhaps due to players on those teams not being fully committed to being in the bubble.

At Thursday, October 08, 2020 3:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David, first-time long-time.

The "why doesn't LeBron just drive the ball every time?" argument always reminds me of the scene in Happy Gilmore when Happy, who can drive the ball 400 yards but can't putt, makes a hole-in-one on a Par 4 and says "That's way easier than putting! I'll just hit the ball in the hole every time!"

I think you answered some of your own questions. In any competitive endeavor of imperfect information (there are no bluffs in chess), the person with initiative has to strike a balance between efficiency and deception. James driving straight to the basket every play would certainly be efficient, but the defense would have an easy time denying that drive if they knew with certainty it was coming. On the other end of the spectrum, no defense would expect LeBron to pull up from half court every possession, but that wouldn't be a recipe for success either.

You mentioned Jimmy Butler's unwillingness to take shots as a reason the Heat lost, but a major reason he wasn't able to score the way he was in Game 3 was that the Lakers dropped down very deep on every opportunity and essentially dared him to take deep jumpers. Butler refused to, and the Lakers were thus able to "hold" him to an efficient 22 points.

James, on the other hand, was able to keep the defense honest with his shooting, which is something he's struggled with in the past. The sequence that comes to mind for me occurred in the third quarter, when James hit a 29-footer when the Heat went under a high PnR. On the Lakers' next half-court possession, James got matched up onto Adebayo and started his dance with the ball that usually serves as a prelude to his step-back 3, passed it to a teammate, then was able to beat Bam backdoor for a layup when Adebayo tried to deny him a catch-and-shoot opportunity.

Also, remember that this is the Heat team that eliminated Giannis, who may be even better at driving to the rim than LeBron, by consistently "building a wall" and exposing his still-developing perimeter jumper. (For some reason, this led to a genuinely hilarious round of takes on how James should have won the MVP instead of Giannis, who had a historically great regular season. And yes, Adebayo was healthy for the entirety of the Bucks series.)

There's certainly more to talk about here, but I think that's a decent start -- I'll exit by pointing out how you correctly noted that Anthony Davis sealed the game with a 3, even though every defense in the league would rather see him shooting from the perimeter than at the rim.

At Thursday, October 08, 2020 8:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I suggested that James should drive to the hoop "more often," not "every play" or "every time." The only reason for him to be standing 30 feet from the hoop without the ball and without cutting is if he is mentally or physically tired--and if that is the case, perhaps he should be taken out of the game to rest, as he is not really threatening the defense when standing out there (he is still not a great shooter), nor is he likely capable of playing great defense if he is too tired to move on offense.

Regarding Butler, I agree with Van Gundy that Butler needs to take some threes if the defense is just going to concede that shot to him. The other issue with Butler's shot selection is that there are too many times when he gets right to the hoop but instead of attempting a shot in the paint he passes to a teammate who does not have a higher percentage shot available than the one that Butler passed up. I understand that these decisions are made by human beings in a split second, but--without holding Butler to the absurd standard (that many people applied to Kobe Bryant) of overanalyzing every shot/pass decision--it is fair to say, as the Van Gundy and Mark Jackson have, that Butler should look for his shot more often, particularly when high percentage shots are available to him.

It can be said that James "kept the defense honest" with his shooting, or it can be said that the defense is willing to concede those shots to keep James out of the paint. When driving lanes are completely cut off and an on balance three pointer is open, James should take that shot (as should Butler).

James' teams are always at their best when he drives to score, even if he ends up passing on the play. One example of this is James' late-game assist to KCP for a right wing three pointer. James drove looking to score, forcing the strong-side corner defender (Olynyk) to block James' path; that created a passing lane (and an open shot for KCP), and James made the correct decision to pass (as opposed to committing a charge or forcing a shot), and KCP drained the shot. On the other hand, when James stands passively behind the three point line, or drives half-heartedly and commits to a jump pass before drawing a double team, he is not nearly as effective.

At Thursday, October 08, 2020 9:20:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we're saying more or less the same thing here. I'm a fan, David, if I came across as impolite forgive me. The "every time" statement was reductio ad absurdum. The Lakers are certainly at their best when LeBron is driving to the basket, I just think it's slightly harder for him to get that drive than you seem to -- the jump shots he takes and actions that don't involve him open those lanes up. And now that he has Anthony Davis on his team, those "loss leader" actions may be just as effective as a James drive. (I may well be wrong on this -- I remember attempting to justify how many pull-up 3s Baron Davis took as a Warrior.)

I do think it's pertinent to mention that the Lakers' "shooters," particularly KCP and Danny Green, have been ice-cold for much of the Finals (their versatility and length has made up for it, but their shots have been off), and LeBron has been criticized for being too passive in the past -- his pass to Donyell Marshall in the 2007 playoffs and his pass to Udonis Haslem in an All-Star game are the best examples I can think of.

I don't consider Kobe an all-time great playmaker overall, but he was certainly underrated in that area -- I don't think I've ever seen a wing player as good at making paint-to-paint passes as he was.

At Thursday, October 08, 2020 1:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


No offense taken. Perhaps we are saying essentially the same thing.

I am mindful of LeBron's history of passivity. The point is not, as some wrongly suggest, that LeBron should always take the last shot or that he should take X number of shots, but rather that he is most valuable when he attacks to score, because that forces the defense to collapse and makes it easier (1) for him to pass because passing lanes open up when the defense collapses and (2) for his teammates to make shots (because they will be wide open after the defense collapses on LeBron). I don't see much value in LeBron standing around, nor do I see much value in him jumping to pass in the middle of a drive before a help defender has fully committed to stopping him. Put simply, LeBron should drive with the intent to shoot, and he should get as close to the hoop as he can before either shooting or passing to a teammate who has a better (or at least wide open) shot.

I agree that Kobe was an underrated playmaker. Both Hubie Brown and Jeff Van Gundy often pointed out Kobe's playmaking skills but their analysis did not elevate the level of discussion about this on either of their respective networks (particularly ESPN, where guys like Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry simply could not understand or correctly evaluate Kobe's shot/pass decisions, a failure that I often noted in my articles during Kobe's career).

At Thursday, October 08, 2020 3:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have noted in the past that LeBron is best as a scorer, not as a passer -- when he puts it on the floor when the defense has a chance to load up on him, it allows the defense to collapse on him and get the ball out of his hands. As we saw in Game 1 and 2 (particularly game 1), which the Lakers dominated without LeBron shouldering a huge scoring load, that can be a recipe for disaster if the role players hit their shots. Still, making "the other guys" beat you is generally the best course of action when facing a LeBron/Giannis/Kawhi/Durant.

I personally think LeBron has made huge strides playing without the ball over his career, although he'll still need to improve in that area if he wants to be effective in the twilight of his career. It's rare to see him simply stand still in the corner for an entire possession like he sometimes would during his first stint in Cleveland. At some point, I'll go back to the tape (DVR) and take a look. I don't think anyone is saying LeBron is at his best when he's allowing himself to be taken out of the play by standing at the perimeter or passing too early. Well, maybe some people are, but that's the nature of the beast with LeBron and the hot-take media cycle.

At Thursday, October 08, 2020 3:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In any case, it's probably a little silly to talk about James too much at this specific moment, since we'll know a lot more about how to contextualize his career after he either wins his fourth ring or blows a 3-1 lead. (If 3-1 leads were insurmountable, LeBron would be looking for his 3rd ring, and he would have faced the Clippers in the conference finals.)

At Thursday, October 08, 2020 10:18:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


The 3 best basketball players i ever seen personally

Kobe micheal jordan and lebron james

All 3 of them were great on offense and defense

And all 3 could control the pace of a game

Jimmy butler solid but a few steps below them

What lebron did was great in controlling the game with pace

Its like a qb like tom brady russ wilson pat mahomes how they control the pace

Rondo a underrated playoff performer he made alot big shots

Caldwell pope been underrated in this series he made alot of big shots

Kyle kuzma shot it well

And made smart plays

Anthony davis is finals mvp

Great offensively and great defensively

Miami has no answer for him

On miami side

Herro is a all star level player

Great young talent

Adebayo a all nba level player

Duncan Robinson is a great shooter

Also david no one talking about the lakers

Are the biggest team and not a good 3 point shooting team

There size been the diffrence after the warriors sucess everyone went away from big man and went small.

U think this will make teams get bigger again cause the warriors shot the 3 historically great with klay and steph.

Alot if analytical people played themselves and teams tried to be the warriors

Big man still has place in game

At Friday, October 09, 2020 12:25:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that LeBron has made strides in terms of playing without the ball, but this is still not a strong suit for him. You are correct that the final take on this series is yet to be written, and must wait until we see if the Lakers win easily, win with difficulty, or blow a 3-1 lead against an injury-riddled, inferior team.

At Friday, October 09, 2020 12:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't know which players you have or have not seen, but your list of the best players you have seen is hard to disagree with regardless.

I agree that Butler is not on their level. Butler has a lot of heart, but his skill set and consistency are not quite there. He is a guy who could challenge any of those guys on any given night, but probably won't outplay any of them over the course of a seven game series.

I like Rondo a lot. He rubs many people the wrong way because he is smart and outspoken, but I'd go to war with him on the basketball court any time and any place.

The series is not over so I won't pick an MVP just yet, but Anthony Davis is obviously on the short list, and if the Lakers win he should get the award unless he just completely falls apart the rest of the way (but if that happens then the Lakers will not win). It is not impossible to imagine LeBron winning the award, and if the Heat win then Butler would get it (unless Adebayo does something incredible in the final three games).

I can't say that Herro is an All-Star right now but he sure looks like a future All-Star, and the "future" may be next season. Kuzma has All-Star level talent, too.

I have consistently talked about the Lakers' size advantage, and I agree with you that the big man still has a place in the game. As I noted in a previous article, the Lakers' "small" lineup is as big as the '86 Celtics, and no one would say that those Celtics were a small ball team.


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