Kuzma’s shot was hardly the turning point in the Lakers’ 102-96 victory in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night, but James’s ability to quickly refocus proved decisive during an aggravating and intense contest.
James finished with a game-high 28 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, scoring 20 points in the second half to pull within one win of the fourth championship of his career.
“That’s the best part about it: It’s a chess match,” he said. “When you get to this point in your career, having your mind at a high level is so much more [important] than the physical. To be able to think through the game, see the adjustments and make plays before they even seem possible, that’s the best part for me personally.”
A series that seemed over after the Lakers’ two opening wins saw Miami gain confidence in Game 3 with a career night from Butler, and the return of all-star center Bam Adebayo added an additional boost Tuesday. Adebayo, who missed the previous two games with a neck strain, came charging out of the gate for the game’s first points by pushing the ball and finished with 15 points and seven rebounds. The Lakers struggled to contain his off-the-dribble attack and eventually shifted to a small lineup with Anthony Davis, who finished with 22 points and nine rebounds, at center to start the second half.
“Bam’s one of the best players in the world,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said before the game. “His ability to push the ball at the center position, his passing ability with all their cutting and movement is something that they have missed, and the lob threat at the rim really puts a lot of pressure on your defense. It definitely changes them.”
The relentless Heat did what it had failed to do in the series’ first two games, turning Tuesday into a grinding defensive battle. Its aggressive helping and active hands bothered Davis, and James started the game out of sync with five first-half turnovers after committing eight in Game 3.
“This was a grind-out, throwback game,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Look, this was in the balance, there were some moments of truth and it came down to making plays. They just made more shots to seal it.”
Miami’s ability to get to the free throw line pressed Los Angeles’s defense, and it prompted moments of fury from James, Vogel and the Lakers’ bench. During the second quarter, James screamed at referee Zach Zarba that he hadn’t touched the ball while defending a Tyler Herro shot that went out of bounds. The Lakers challenged, and the call was overturned. At the end of the third quarter, James twice exchanged words with referee John Goble, pleading for a traveling call on Butler.
Some of the Lakers’ frustration was a carry-over from Game 3, when early foul trouble sidelined Davis. The Heat shot 26 free throws to the Lakers’ 21 — a disparity that narrowed down the stretch — and Butler’s physicality going to the basket presented issues, as it had in Game 3. Butler picked up where he left off Sunday, making his first five baskets to finish with a team-high 22 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
In a strategic shift, Davis spent much of the night defending Butler in an attempt to limit his opportunities around the basket after his 40-point outing in Game 3. Davis said he spent the entire night “locked into” the matchup, noting that the Lakers’ goal was to “make it tough” on Butler because it “was very easy for him" to “impose his will” on Game 3.
Davis, who is on the cusp of winning his first title, added that Vogel’s season-long emphasis on defense has been key to the Lakers’ postseason run.
“When I was in New Orleans, [Pelicans Coach] Alvin [Gentry] used to say it all the time, he used to preach defense,” Davis said. “I had the best offensive team. We would score 130 [points] and would never get past the second round because we didn't play defense. You hear the cliché all the time, defense wins championships.”
The Lakers have firm control of the Finals with a 3-1 lead and the opportunity to close out in Friday’s Game 5, but the margin between the teams was razor thin Tuesday. During a fourth-quarter sequence, James slammed the ball in frustration after a defensive breakdown between Davis and Alex Caruso led to a layup. As with his earlier pass to Kuzma, James quickly regained control of his composure and the game action, hitting a double-clutch layup on the next possession.
Down the stretch in Game 4, James turned to bully ball against the Heat’s smaller wings, drawing multiple fouls and hitting the glass to grab a contested rebound over Jae Crowder. All told, he hit five consecutive free throws during a key fourth-quarter push and did not leave the court during the final period.
“I felt like for me personally this was one of the biggest games of my career,” said James, who sent a text message to his teammates proclaiming Game 4 to be a “must-win” because of Miami’s competitive spirit. “I don’t care about rest. I really don’t. I don’t care about resting. I can rest in a week, max. I can rest for a month straight [after the series is over].”
With Miami refusing to go away, James grabbed a defensive rebound and found a rare transition opening, kicking to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a three-pointer in the corner. The guard was an unsung hero for the Lakers, scoring 10 first-quarter points to help make up for James’s sloppy start and Davis’s quiet one and hitting a contested driving layup with two minutes remaining to push the Lakers’ lead to seven.
“That’s one of my specialties,” said Caldwell-Pope, who finished with 15 points, his best scoring performance of the Finals. “I’m always running corner to corner. If LeBron or [Davis] grabs the rebound, I’m running to the corner and I’m ready to shoot.”
Davis delivered the dagger by hitting an open three-pointer in the final minute, reprising the late-game hero role he played in hitting a buzzer-beating three-pointer against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals. The all-star forward slapped his chest in celebration as James stomped on the court and screamed again.
This time, James was yelling in jubilation, not indignation.
“[Davis] is a big shot-maker late in the shot clock, early in the shot clock, fourth quarter, first quarter, everything in between,” James said. “He knew it was late in the shot clock and he obviously trusted his shot that he works on consistently. Big-time shot, big-time play for our team to be able to put the game away.”
Find highlights from Game 4 …
Final: Lakers win 102-96 to take a 3-1 series lead
By Ava Wallace
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope started this game exactly how he finished it for the Lakers: hot. After a cold start in the fourth, Caldwell-Pope warmed up and hit a perfect corner three with just under three minutes to go and then made it 95-88 with an easy layup less than a minute later.
Anthony Davis followed up with a dagger with 39.5 seconds remaining to make it 100-91. The Lakers took the victory, coming out on top of a tough defensive battle with what feels like it could be a demoralizing loss for Miami given how hard it played yet again.
LeBron James led with 28 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and six turnovers. Anthony Davis had 22 points and nine rebounds.
Jimmy Butler had 22 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists for the Heat. Tyler “a Herro is more than a sandwich” Herro had 21 points and Duncan Robinson had 17 points.
LeBron James keeps the Lakers barely ahead
By Ava Wallace
This game now officially has everything.
There was a scary moment in which Anthony Davis looked like he might’ve injured his right leg, a pair of incredible three-pointers from Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson when it looked like things were slipping away from Miami and an awesome moment from LeBron James to re-take the lead for Los Angeles.
James pulled off what looked like a bounce pass to himself while splitting two defenders then driving to the basket for a three-point play. This is the type of game the NBA bubble deserves!
The Lakers lead 90-87 with just over four minutes to play and James leads all scorers with 26 points.
Third quarter: Lakers lead 75-70
By Ava Wallace
Los Angeles had worked its way up to a seven-point lead late in the third, matching their biggest margin of the night, before the Lakers put Duncan Robinson and Kelly Olynyk back on the free-throw line and a jumper from Olynyk narrowed the gap even more. That disparity at the foul line is still making a big difference for the Heat, as Miami has taken 24 free throws to Los Angeles’ nine — five of which have come from LeBron James.
Nonetheless, James and Anthony Davis seem to both be cooking at this point with 17 points apiece, always good news for the Lakers heading down the stretch.
Butler is still struggling on offense after halftime with 16 points and seven rebounds. Robinson has 14 points and Bam Adebayo has 13 points in 24 minutes.
LeBron James heats up
By Ava Wallace
The Lakers went on an 8-0 run in the third quarter thanks to LeBron James, who awakened after halftime. James has 17 points, five rebounds and five assists to balance out those five early turnovers and now the Los Angeles holds a 63-60 lead with just under six minutes to play. The margin would’ve been bigger had Duncan Robinson not sunk a sweet catch-and-shoot three.
Halftime: Lakers lead 49-47
By Ava Wallace
This was not a good half of basketball for LeBron James (and it was just fine for Anthony Davis), but Los Angeles has the lead anyway. James has eight points on 3-of-8 shooting and five turnovers and Davis has eight points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field. Crucially, James is also the only Laker to have gotten to the free throw line tonight. He’s shot three.
Miami, meanwhile, has nine points at the charity stripe — none more than Duncan Robinson, who has four — and that’s helped them keep pace in a tight game. Butler wasn’t as much of an offensive force in the second quarter, scoring just two points, but Tyler Herro (seven points) and Kendrick Nunn (six points) stepped up to help out.
Both benches played well in the first half, in fact; Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso gave good contributions for Los Angeles.
As for Bam Adebayo watch, the big man has nine points and two rebounds in 14 minutes.
Markieff Morris pulls Lakers even with a three
By Ava Wallace
Miami went on an 11-2 run at the start of the second quarter to take a four-point lead – with Jimmy Butler on the bench, mind you — but the Lakers’ long-range shots are treating them well.
They made four of five from behind the arc in the first quarter and another three from Markieff Morris tied the game at 39 with just over six minutes to play. LeBron James is up to five turnovers, but the Lakers bench is holding up well.
Jimmy Butler has yet to score in the second quarter but Bam Adebayo is providing support with nine points. Duncan Robinson has nine as well.
First quarter: Lakers lead 27-22
By Ava Wallace
Jimmy Butler cut Los Angeles’ lead to just five with a jumper at the buzzer — he’s 5-for-5 for 11 points and the only Heat scorer in double figures. Butler’s doing a good job getting to the sweet spots he favors on the floor despite a little extra attention on defense.
Los Angeles’ lead, meantime, comes on the back of a 10-point performance from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who leads an efficient Lakers’ offense shooting 61.1 percent from the floor.
LeBron James has three points, four assists and three mildly worrisome turnovers.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope starts hot for the Lakers
By Ava Wallace
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has 10 of the Lakers’ 21 points as Los Angeles holds a three-point lead over the Heat. Caldwell-Pope had just five points in Game 3.
The Lakers started somewhat sloppily yet again and have five turnovers with three minutes left in the quarter. They had 19 on Sunday.
Bam Adebayo will start for the Heat
By Ava Wallace
Not only is Miami’s big man back after missing two games with a neck strain, he’s in the starting lineup. Point guard Goran Dragic (foot) is still out.
The Heat have to be overjoyed to have Adebayo back both for his offense and rim protection. He enters Tuesday’s game averaging 17.8 points and 10.9 rebounds in the postseason. Miami’s offensive boards have particularly suffered in his absence.
What to watch for in Game 4
By Ava Wallace
Folks, not only do we have a series thanks to Miami’s 115-104 win Sunday in Game 2, but Heat big man Bam Adebayo will return Tuesday from a neck strain to add even more interest to these NBA Finals.
Adebayo, who missed Games 2 and 3, warmed up ahead of tonight’s bout at Disney World and poses some intriguing questions ahead of Game 4 (point guard Goran Dragic (foot), the Heat’s other injured player, is still out). It’ll be interesting to see just how much Adebayo can do — not just minutes wise, but if he’s healthy enough to go full-speed defending Lakers center Anthony Davis or if Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra sticks to the matchups that generally worked for Miami on Sunday when they played man defense rather than zone and pressured the living daylight out of Davis.
Speaking of Davis, how he rebounds from a poor Game 3 performance might be the No. 1 thing to watch Tuesday. It was clear Sunday that the Lakers needed both LeBron James and Davis playing on point to smother the Heat the way they did earlier in the series, so how Los Angeles Coach Frank Vogel adjusts to either help Davis deal with that defensive pressure or what Davis does to play through it is the key question for the Lakers, who own a 2-1 lead in the series.
It would also be beyond surprising if all-start forward Jimmy Butler gets as many looks as he did Sunday. That means someone else on the Heat — perhaps Tyler Herro, perhaps Kelly Olynyk — will likely have the chance to take advantage of open looks. Who’s it going to be?