The Los Angeles Lakers won Game 4 of the NBA Finals Tuesday night, taking a commanding 3-1 lead over the battered and bruised Miami Heat, and moving one step closer to the 17th championship in Lakers history.
For all of the struggles and hardships the NBA has been through this year — canceling the season, organizing the bubble and getting acclimated and tuned up for playoff runs — it has been some of the best basketball I have seen in awhile. There were very few stinkers in any game during the playoffs. Even in the early rounds, the competition was fierce despite some short series. This reality makes the outcome of these Finals so difficult to come to terms with.
This series had so much competitive promise, and too many intriguing storylines to keep track of at once. LeBron and Miami facing off in the playoffs for the first time since he infamously left in 2014, the young and gritty Heat who scrapped their way to the finals against all odds against a seasoned Lakers team with time-defying veterans, bench depth versus star power, homegrown talent against the first real mercenary squad in NBA history. Everything was lined up for a competitive, scrappy and great NBA Finals matchup. So when Miami Heat stars Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo went out with injuries in Game 1, the entire basketball world sighed in collective disappointment, with our only saving grace from a four-game sweep being a historic Jimmy Butler game in Game 3. Even when we thought that the Heat might pull out a win in Game 4, LeBron and the Lakers cranked up the intensity and won in a much more decisive manner than the final score showed. With an all but certain victory for the Lakers coming in Game 5, we really must consider where this Finals ranks amongst the most disappointing in NBA history.
2004 NBA Finals
When it comes to truly disappointing Finals in the league’s history, there are really three that jump out to my mind. The first is the 2004 Finals, which featured the seemingly loaded LA Lakers with peak Shaq and Kobe, along with all-timers Karl Malone and Gary Payton near the ends of their careers. On the other side, the Detroit Pistons lead by defensive specialists Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups and Rashead Wallace. This was surely on the path for another Finals win for the famous Shaq and Kobe dynasty, but it quickly became apparent that the Pistons had other plans. Wallace and the Pistons easily disposed of the Lakers in five games, holding the Lakers to under 90 points in every one of their victories. This was also the Finals that put the nail in the coffin of the Shaq and Kobe connection, with Shaq being traded in the off season to Miami and dividing perhaps the most exciting duo of NBA stars since Micheal Jordan and Scottie Pipen.
2007 NBA Finals
A few years later, another disappointing Finals would come via the hand of the San Antonio Spurs as they swept the new face of the NBA LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers. The Spurs beat the Cavs handedly, with the final game being the only real game of the series. Perhaps most disappointingly, James completely disappeared throughout the series despite an incredible breakout season, starting with a complete no show in Game 1 of the series. The League would have to wait a few more years to see their next superstar emerge victorious on the biggest stage, which leads me to my last finals disappointment.
2014 NBA Finals
The previous years Finals gave NBA fans one of the greatest shots in NBA history, the “BANG” heard ‘round the world as Ray Allen sunk a clutch corner three to give the Heat the lead late, and ultimately the win, leading to a Miami win in game seven and giving the Heat their second championship in the LeBron/Wade era. The following year however was anything but competitive. The Spurs got their revenge over the Heat in 2014, dismantling the Heat in five games, of which their four wins came by nine or more points. The beating was so bad that LeBron decided the nice warm beaches of Miami were too comfortable for him and packed it up back to the sports hell of Cleveland, Ohio in hopes of getting his original team a championship.
2020 NBA Finals
Now, with the brief history lesson out of the way, we come back to this year’s finals. The LeBron-led Lakers looked dominant in Games 1 and 2 and took a predictable night off in Game 3 as Butler abused the rim. Game 4 saw much of the same in the second half, as LeBron did LeBron things and took over the second half. It is apparent now that despite Adebayo’s return the series, the Lakers still have complete control. Even if the Heat play well to start, the Lakers can find enough offense to keep them close, and then LeBron and Anthony Davis turn up the intensity in the second half. If the first two games weren’t enough to convince you, then consider last night’s game. At halftime, the Lakers had nine turnovers, LeBron and Davis combined for only 16 of the Lakers first half points and Miami’s defense looked to be slowing down the Lakers just enough to win. In the third quarter, Miami had 24 free throw attempts, compared to the seven attempts from the Lakers. All aspects of the game were working against the Lakers, and yet they were able to pull it together. LeBron came alive in the third quarter and Davis followed soon after, as they went from 16 combined points to 50 by the end of the game. The Heat lost the free throw advantage as they only had two attempts from the mid point of the third quarter on, while the Lakers attempted 14. The Lakers defense flipped the script and forced the Heat into 13 turnovers by the end of the game. They forced inconsistent shooters in Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro into contested shots and bad threes, while the Lakers found easy looks at the rim and free throws to claw back in and take the lead late in the fourth quarter. As for Miami, it seemed they had control defensively most of the game, but most of their problems came on the offensive end. Despite forcing nine first quarter turnovers, they only had eight points off of those turnovers. When there wasn’t a fast break opportunity, Miami’s half court offense was stagnant, leading to wild and contested three-point shots and a deplorable three-point percentage of 26% at halftime. The Heat had many opportunities to pull ahead in the first two and a half quarters, and yet they could not find any way to take them.
As much as I like this Miami Heat team, they are facing a bridge too far. It took a magical 40point triple double from Butler to win even a single game, and Tyler Herro isn’t looking like the 20-year-old stud that we saw against the Celtics. Adebayo isn’t enough himself to guard Davis, and without Dragic, the Heat have significantly less playmaking, experience and consistent shooting; all of which are desperately needed right now. On the flip side, LeBron is too locked in right now to let his team lose, even if it means taking and making 30-foot threes to lead his team to a win. (On a side note, when did we ever think LeBron would have Curry range, 2020 really is weird.) Davis showed up as the defensive monster we all know him as, and the Lakers bench suddenly seems serviceable. There are just too many hurdles to jump over for Miami to bring this series back, a truly disappointing end to an incredibly promising playoffs, and what I felt would be a very intriguing matchup.