LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler drove it strong to his right with Los Angeles Lakers forward Markieff Morris defending. It resulted in a contested, awkward layup off his opposite leg that banked in to give Butler 40 points and seal Game 3 of the NBA Finals for the Heat on Sunday.
“We felt like we got bullied,” Anthony Davis said.
Down the stretch in Game 4 on Tuesday night, Butler attempted the exact same move at a similar juncture, but Davis — a first-team All-NBA defender — was assigned to him.
With the Heat down seven and 24 seconds left in the game, Butler drove hard to his right, elevated off the opposite leg, put his body into Davis and the big man swatted the shot away with his left hand.
“That's why he's the Defensive Player of the Year,” LeBron James said about his star teammate after recording a game-high 28 points, 12 boards and eight assists. “We said that all year. His ability to play one through five, guard anybody on the floor, take the challenge, not only guard on the perimeter, and continue to protect the paint. Guards drive on him. It's hard to score on him. You see how high [Tyler] Herro threw that ball up? It went in, but he had to throw that thing up to the skyscrapers, right? That guy can do everything defensively. Guarding the ball, guard the post, slide his feet with guards, contest, can body up with bigs. I mean, need I say more?”
Ever since Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo was awarded MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors for the 2019-20 season, Lakers players have vocalized on a few occasions how James and Davis were deserving of the awards.
Davis was in foul trouble much of Game 3 and couldn’t play the aggressive style he’s accustomed to. The coaching staff intended to use Davis on Butler, but couldn’t risk it with foul trouble.
After that game, privately, a frustrated Davis alerted teammates and coaches that he needed to be glued to Butler, sources told Yahoo Sports.
And in Monday’s practice, Davis was officially given the assignment he wanted. After the ball was tipped and when the Heat got their first offensive possession, the tone was set when Davis shadowed Butler.
Butler ended the evening with 22 points on 8-of-17 shooting, 10 rebounds and nine assists, but Davis’ presence eliminated the quantity of quality looks Butler had in the previous game.
“I just tried to be locked in to him,” Davis said. “We know that the past ... the last game, he kind of just took over and imposed his will on the game on both ends of the floor, and we just tried to give him a different look. Tried to make him shoot over a contested hand, finishing over the length at the rim. Just make it tough for him. It was very easy for him in Game 3.
“We just wanted to switch it up. I wanted to use a lot of my energy on the defensive end, knowing the other guys on the team were going to make up the absence for me on the offensive end. The guys did a good job making shots, making plays for our team, especially late game. Defensively, I think we were just better overall. We were locked into what we were doing. We still had mistakes but some of the mistakes we had, we just covered for each other. Mistakes are going to happen. But we seemed like we played with a little bit more sense of urgency tonight.”
Davis had 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists and a game-high four blocks. Butler credited Davis’ effectiveness on the defensive end.
“He’s an incredible defender,” Butler said. “He contests a lot of shots, blocked shots. But I just think I got to be better at getting my guys involved. More dribble hand-offs, more screens. Maybe playing a little bit without the ball. Playing off the ball. That’s something that I can learn from.”
James was disappointed in the Lakers’ effort and performance in Game 3, understanding this stage was too big for such a drop in engagement, sources said. He knew it started with him.
Before Game 4, he sent a text message to his team telling them that this is a “must-win” game.
“When I woke up from my nap this morning after our team meeting, I just felt that [way],” James said. “I felt that vibe. I felt that pressure. I felt like for me, personally, this was one of the biggest games of my career. I just wanted to relay that message to my teammates, the type of zone I was in, the type of moment it was, and the kind of team we were playing against. After the Game 3 win, that confidence they had, the confidence they still have even after tonight's loss. They are just a gritty, so-damn-well-coached team. I feel like if we're going to be a championship ballclub, if we want to really be a championship team, that we got to have that same grit and that same attitude. It was my mindset. I'm still in it. You can see my mind kind of working right now.”
Game 5, the potential closeout game, will be Friday.
“They are going to make adjustments,” Davis said. “We got to be prepared for it. We're going to make adjustments. It's going to be a big two days for us. Come out Game 5 and hopefully finish it off.”
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