Hardly Frank Vogel smashmouth ball
How Erik Spoelstra tricked the Lakers into shooting a record number of 3s
BY DAVID THORPE
The Lakers were down four at the start of the second half of Game 2 when LeBron James found himself with a dream opportunity: He was alone on the left wing, behind the 3-point line, with only Meyers Leonard between him and pay dirt. LeBron rim attacks are among the sport’s deadliest. Leonard seldom plays because of his suspect defense. It’s mathematical: LeBron, who plays for a coach who preaches attacking the rim, Frank Vogel, would drive.
But LeBron shot a 3, one of a Finals record 47. The Lakers followed with 42 more in Game 3. This is weird from the team that led the whole league this season in shooting at the rim, and it hasn’t worked. The undermanned Heat have won five of the Finals last six quarters, as the direct result of a clever gambit by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who has somehow turned the NBA’s top paint attack into the 3-happy Houston Rockets.
Frank Vogel came to the Lakers with a reputation. His Pacers teams, anchored by Roy Hibbert, owned the paint. Once the Lakers secured Anthony Davis, the salary cap dictated affordable signings. Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee weren’t seen as game-changers, but over time, under Vogel, they have become … incredible. One or the other is part of almost every one of the Lakers’ most effective lineups.
Just a few weeks ago we published a story about the Lakers called “Giants will win the West,” peppered with words like block, smash, and dunk. This is how Vogel has the Lakers play. Prior to Game 3, my friend Zach Lowe wrote:
Vogel wanted them to be the league's most physical team—echoes of the "smashmouth basketball" vision that guided his Indiana Pacers teams. Every opponent shot was an invitation to hit someone in the rebounding scrum. “He wanted us to legally, cleanly, smash people.”
For all of Game 1 and part of Game 2, the much bigger Lakers did this so effectively that it looked like a varsity vs. junior varsity high-school practice. The Lakers pounded the Heat, grabbing 25 offensive rebounds and giving up 11, while blocking 11 shots. The only real question on many people's minds as it related to the Finals was “who will be the Finals MVP?” as both Davis and LeBron looked spectacular.
Then injuries to two of the Heat’s best players—Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic—forced Spoelstra to innovate, and that has lured the Lakers off course.
With 4:36 left in the third quarter of Game 2, the Lakers led 92-74. The Lakers, to that point, had outscored the Heat 208-172. The word “sweep” entered the conversation.
Ten seconds later, Jimmy Butler drove and scored. That’s when everything changed. Since that moment, the Lakers haven’t won a single quarter, trailing 155-136 over six quarters in which the Heat were without two of their three best players.
My thought, watching at home, was the Lakers were like a boxer who dropped his guard assuming his opponent had no knockout punch to throw. Once you get tagged in the jaw, it can take a minute to reorient yourself. Game 3, in this analogy, was when the heavyweight still had his head spinning.
Following Butler’s layup, the Lakers’ next shots were: a Davis 21-foot miss, four consecutive 3s, a LeBron one-footer, then another 3. And so it has gone. The “Block and Smash” Lakers are now the all-time record holders in attempted 3s in a Finals game.
Some of this may have been Laker complacency. With a big lead, perhaps it’s nice to avoid taking hits in the paint. But a lot of it is Heat strategy. Here is how it works.
Not guarding LeBron
Remember when the Rockets didn’t defend OKC’s Luguentz Dort outside the 3-point line, and dared him to shoot? The Heat are doing that to LeBron James. Not since Gregg Popovich in the 2013 Finals against his Spurs has a team ignored LeBron like this. And it’s working. After a 33-point, no turnover effort in Game 2, when the Heat were adjusting on the fly to injuries, LeBron had 25 points and eight turnovers in Game 3 and looked entirely flustered at times.
Whether in zone or man-to-man, Heat players, often Butler, race to LeBron after he catches the ball. They often have a long way to go to get there, which is the entire point. That extra body is loitering inside, stymying the Lakers’ dunkers and drivers. It mucks up Vogel-ball, and it only works because the Heat are not at all worried about where LeBron is on the perimeter. If they did this against Danny Green, he would turn it into shooting practice.
LeBron doesn’t want to shoot 3s all night, though. He wants to attack. And he loves to survey and think. When he catches the ball he often holds it long enough to allow the defender to recover, even if he’s in what we call “way off his man position.” Other times, he quick attacks while the Heat flood the paint with help defenders, leaving Lakers open all over the place. This is how a team can shoot a record-setting number of 3s. The Heat invite the kickout pass, the 3 follows naturally.
The Lakers’ open shooters have the green light, and are making 35 percent of their 3s, in keeping with the team’s average. But it isn’t smashmouth, and it has been a major interruption in their preferred style of attack. The Lakers opened the playoffs attempting more than 44 percent of their shots at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. Their numbers have been elite in this category all year. But in the last two games, only 28 percent of their attempts have been at the rim. This is totally uncharacteristic. In Game 3, the Lakers sniffed a season low for putbacks, generating only 5.7 points per 100 shots missed.
And sometimes doubling LeBron
Spoelstra is mixing up his defensive looks, but—without anyone to really protect the rim—he is always hoping to coax the Lakers into 3s. Smart double teams have been an effective way of keeping LeBron far away from the rim, and the Lakers way from their season-long identity.
The Lakers have barely played centers
In the wake of the Heat’s injuries, Erik Spoelstra broke the glass surrounding backup center Kelly Olynyk, who played a combined 68 minutes in Games 2 and 3. Olynyk can shoot 3s, which means he has the potential to drag his man—typically Howard or McGee—far from the hoop. Vogel has more or less ignored both of them.
GAME 1: Dwight Howard 15 minutes, JaVale McGee 0
GAME 2: Dwight Howard 17 minutes, JaVale McGee 0
GAME 3: Dwight Howard 15 minutes, JaVale McGee 0
Thus far, it’s been a mistake. In Game 3, as an example, other than two extra efforts by LeBron, the Lakers did not block a single shot. This from a team that averaged 6.6 to lead the league in the regular season and 5.5 (tied for first) in the playoffs. The Lakers tried this “no real center” to great effect against Houston, but the Heat offense, while less talented, is better organized to attack in the paint.
Jimmy Butler is now Bizarro Harden
With Harden and McGee on the bench, the Heat have the green light to attack the rim, where they scored an incredible 52 points in Game 3. Butler is channeling his “Bizarro Harden,” attacking off the dribble, drawing fouls, and scoring at the rim. None of this is normal. He became the first non-center to score 40 points in the Finals without taking a single 3. Make no mistake: The Heat love having Howard and McGee on the bench.
Game 3 could have ended the series. It would have been the perfect time for the Lakers’ most extraordinary effort. This was THE GAME to see them play their best—but they were so flat, with absolutely senseless turnovers all four quarters.
The Heat have tricked the Lakers into playing a style Vogel never wanted. The title is two wins away, and the NBA’s leading proponent of big men being tough in the paint is sitting his top centers, only getting Anthony Davis one shot in the fourth quarter, and not defending with typical relentlessness. Even when Miami fills the paint with bodies, even if Bam Adebayo returns and plays well, the Lakers have a vastly superior team inside. (Not long ago, they overwhelmed Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside.) They can impose their will if they so choose.
What the Lakers can do
The Lakers are the better team. They can win many different ways, including by making more 3s, or simply going back to how they played all season. But the stakes are high. LeBron is openly talking about not knowing how many more times he’ll make it back to the Finals. To me, it’s time to ensure victory, with three elements of fine tuning:
Play with off-the-charts force
One of the hallmarks of the game's top defenses and defenders, is attention to the game plan and communication throughout defensive actions. The Lakers shredded the West precisely this way. This short Butler jumper should have been easy to contest any number of ways, but the Lakers did none of them. LeBron’s reaction says a lot—this ho-hum approach almost always leads to fouls from poorly positioned defenders. After sending Miami to the line just 14 times in Game 1, the Heat have taken 57 free throws since, making 52. Butler alone is 23-26 from the line in Games 2 and 3. He has stepped up his aggressiveness at the same time the Lakers exhaled and lost their edge. (Remember when he said “you’re in trouble?”)
Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee might not be at their best on the perimeter against Olynyk, but rim protection and putbacks are worth more, in a way that compounds as the series drags on. At the moment, the Lakers are only really playing eight players—Dwight would be the ninth. When Bam returns, the Heat are certainly the deeper team, now they have embraced Olynyk, and could stay fresher. The Laker bigs don’t just mop up minutes, but do so with the kind of grappling and shoving that is exceptional at wearing out opponents.
Turn some of those 3s into dunks
The Heat have been flooding the paint with help defense whenever anyone drives—often it’s LeBron. The kickout pass has been resulting in an open look at a 3, with a Heat defender closing out at high speed. With the defense spread out in rotations, that’s also a wonderful opportunity to drive the ball right back into the paint. The Lakers have no one but LeBron who is elite at driving and finishing, but if Bam doesn’t play they can finish lots of shots inside; if he does play, he can’t block every attempt. After losing Game 1 to the Rockets, the Lakers scored 54, 56, and 62 paint points in the next three games. If the will is there, the dunks and layups will be too. They just finished two games with anemic paint scoring. They haven’t had three games in a row like that all year.
The Lakers have not lost two straight games all playoffs. The Heat should expect a much more focused opponent on Wednesday. The Lakers have a system that has worked all year. The Heat have a system that’s working right now. Game 4 is up for grabs.
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