Game Five was the best game of the Finals, by far: close, well-played, and two superstars matching each other blow for blow. Even Mark Jackson said something useful, comparing the match-up to an Ali - Frazier match-up in the 1970s. Amazingly, this was the second good Jackson comment of the Finals. Before Game Three, he said that the Heat needed to abandon the zone defense the Lakers had picked apart, man up, and play man-to-man defense. Which the Heat have done the last three games, winning two of them.
How close was Game Five? The teams made the same number of baskets (38) on almost the same number of shots (83 by the Heat, 82 by the Lakers). The teams made the same number of three-pointers (14). While the Lakers had three more offensive rebounds, they almost exactly balanced that out by having two more turnovers. Free throws were equally balanced: The Heat took 22, only one more than the Lakers’ 21.
The difference in the game? The Heat went an incredible 21 for 22 from the line, while the Lakers went an excellent, but not incredible, 18 for 21. Those three extra made free throws were the difference, proving that something as seemingly mundane as making your free throws can make all the difference.
At the free throw line is where Jimmy Butler bested LeBron James — Butler went 12 for 12, while LeBron had two of the Laker misses, going 4 for 6, the only minor flaw in yet another powerful LeBron Finals performance. And while Butler is not as physically strong, he certainly matches LeBron mental toughness. Including on something as simple as free throws. I scribbled a note to myself in the last minute to make sure to mention Butler’s remarkable ability to overcome his exhaustion in the last minute of the game in which he played over 47 minutes and calmly swished free throw after free throw in his first NBA Finals appearance, knowing that even a single miss might have ended his team’s season.
I also made a note to myself to include this graphic from Game Five, which demonstrates that people do in fact rise to the occasion:
1. In my Sunday morning game, we have had three players over the years blow out their Achilles tendons. Amazingly, one of those players had a twin brother who tore his Achilles the same day, 3000 miles away. I know what it looks like when a player tears his Achilles. We all saw it happen in last year’s Finals with Kevin Durant went down. Each time, the player has had little or no physical contact, falls to the floor, and reaches back to grab at his heel. Which is exactly what Anthony Davis did last night. The camera flashed on LeBron after it happened, and he flashed a look that I swear was his “Damn, AD just tore his Achilles” face. Wow, I am very happy that he, I and many others watching the game were wrong.
That being said, the heel injury AD suffered hobbled him last night, and may in fact be worse for Game Six. Also note that before AD’s injury, Jimmy Butler was much more effective against AD than he had been in Game Four. He did so by pulling up for dreaded mid-range jumpers rather than trying to score at the rim, going 4 for 4 with 3 assists in the first quarter, pre-AD injury.
2. While the Heat won by only three, they could have won by much more with a few breaks on several in-and-out three pointers and by making some fairly easy shots around the rim. In particular, Bam Adebayo struggled to score inside. He wound up making only 5 of his 12 shots, almost all of which were at point-blank range.
In this war of attrition Finals, Bam has clearly not yet completely recovered from his various ailments. The rest of the Finals may depend on which team’s star post player is healthier Sunday night — and (if necessary) Tuesday’s Game Seven.
3. For the first four games, the Lakers had overcome their top-heavy reputation by getting excellent performances from their “other players”. Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Playoff Rajon Rondo all had excellent games. Friday night was different — LeBron and AD scored 68 of the team’s 108, and only one other player — KCP — was in double figures. Contrast that to the Heat, who had six players in double figures. Perhaps not surprising from a team with no starter drafted higher than 13th, a star player picked as the last player in the first round, and two key players, Should-Have-Been-a-Spur Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn, who were not drafted at all.
4. Robinson and Nunn both had break-out games. Nunn had a confident hop to his step from the first time he touched it, as if he suddenly realized that he belonged on the big stage. Erik Spoelstra must have seen that too, as he played Nunn 27 minutes off the bench.
Robinson finally was able to get himself open for his shot, taking 13 threes and making 7. He also does something that not many players do. Virtually every time he catches the ball, he rises to shoot. If he is open, he shoots, but if not open, he will change in mid-air and pass the ball to a teammate. We used to coach our players to think shot when they had the ball on a 2 on 1 fast break. We would tell them it is easier to switch from a shot to a pass than vice versa. Robinson is the first player I have seen apply that same mindset to shooting three-pointers.
5. The LA Times sports page headline Saturday: ”No reign, only Heat.” Brilliant.
6. As someone who loves math, I think it is very cool when Jae Crowder squares off with whichever Morris twin is on the Lakers. Crowder wears number 88, Morris 99. Referees must hate calling a double technical on those two guys.
7. Speaking of not liking something, who else can’t stand those fake Chris Paul commercials?
8. What I do like is a game with a lot of lead changes. Game Five for instance, with six lead changes in a 100 second stretch at the end of the fourth quarter in which both teams made almost all their shots, or got offensive rebounds on the misses. And if LeBron had thrown a better pass to Danny Green, DG had fought off that pass and made the open three, or Lakers Morris twin had not panicked after getting the offensive rebound of DG’s brick, there would have been at least one more lead change. As my gift to our readers, here is that stretch: