Following Game 4 of the 2020 NBA Finals, I wrote about how the Los Angeles Lakers might have found their Jimmy Butler stopper in Anthony Davis.
While Davis had a hand in Butler coming back down to earth in Game 4, he couldn't prevent the five-time All-Star from carrying the Miami Heat to victory in Game 5. Butler did everything for the Heat in the win, leading the way with 35 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists to record his second triple-double of the series. He shot an efficient 11-for-19 from the field and a perfect 12-for-12 from the free throw line while committing only three turnovers.
How was Butler able to get it going against Davis? Let's take a closer look.
Take what the defence gives you
In Game 3, Butler punished the Lakers by taking a page out of LeBron James' book - target the opposing team's weakest defender by putting them in a pick-and-roll, force a switch and attack the mismatch in isolation.
In Game 4, the Lakers were much stingier when it came to giving up those switches. They started the game switching some Butler pick-and-rolls, but they quickly switched things up after Butler got off to another hot start by having whoever was guarding the screener hedge while Davis ducked way underneath.
It worked because Davis has the size to make it difficult for Butler to score in the paint and because Butler has struggled to score outside of the paint this season. According to NBA.com, Butler shot 31.7 percent from midrange and 24.4 percent from 3-point range during the regular season, the combination of which made him the least efficient volume jump shooter in the league. With the way Davis was defending him, it was pretty clear that the Lakers were going to live with him taking just about any jumper he wanted, especially if it meant he wasn't living in the paint like in Game 3.
In Game 4, Butler didn't look to take those shots. In Game 5, he did.
It helped that the Heat changed the way they had their guards set screens for Butler in those pick-and-rolls.
They set more traditional screens in Game 4, with the screen-setter facing the sideline, like so:
In Game 5, they had them face the opposite baseline.
Small of an adjustment as it might seem, it helped Butler get closer to the basket for his pull-ups. Why? It gave Davis a longer and deeper route to get around the screen. It would've been easier for Davis to fight over the screen instead of under it, but that would have made him more vulnerable to Butler turning the corner and getting downhill.
Case in point:
Same here, only with James guarding him at the point of attack:
Is it sustainable? The Lakers can only hope not. Of the 11 field goals Butler made in Game 5, six came outside the paint. He made five midrange jumpers and one 3-pointer. If Butler is making jump shots, he joins a short list of players who become almost impossible to stop.
On a roll
According to ESPN's Zach Lowe, Butler ran 18 handoffs as the screener in Game 4, by far and away his highest number of the season. I don't have the number for Game 5, but I'm guessing Butler ran a similar amount of handoffs as the screener.
The thinking behind it was relatively simple: If Davis is going to back all the way off of Butler when he has the ball in his hands, it puts a ton of pressure on whoever is guarding the player on the receiving end of the handoff, usually one of Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, to get around Butler's screen.
That puts a ton of pressure on them to make shots, of course, but the Heat got a big game out of Robinson in Game 5, with him scoring 26 points on 7-for-13 shooting from 3-point range. Herro scored only 12 points on 4-for-11 shooting from the field, but Kendrick Nunn gave the Heat a big boost off the bench with 14 points.
Nunn and Butler connected early with a handoff in the second quarter that freed Nunn up for a midrange pull-up.
Nunn returned the favour a few possessions later by getting into the paint off of a handoff from Butler and setting him up for a layup.
The Lakers don't want to switch those handoffs. Otherwise, it would open the door for Butler to attack a mismatch in isolation. So the Lakers have to play it somewhat traditionally with Davis dropping back and shading towards his defender, which opens up a driving lane for Nunn when Rajon Rondo goes over the screen.
Different result, same process.
Davis shades towards Herro to prevent him from getting an uncontested runner, paving the way for Butler to get deep position for the offensive rebound. Butler then kicks it out to Robinson for his fourth 3-pointer of the game with a pinpoint pass.
The Heat generated 8.8 percent of their offence on handoffs during the regular season, the highest rate in the league. This is what they do. Butler was rarely the screener, but putting him in those positions has been a smart adjustment by the Heat to counter Davis guarding him. Butler is basically alternating between playing the role of a guard and a centre in these Finals, sometimes on the same possession. The fact that he can do both at a high level shows how unique of a player he is.
Is it sustainable? This is where the Heat feel the absence of Goran Dragic the most. Robinson is a tremendous 3-point shooter, but he's not a playmaker. Herro can make plays for himself and others, but he's a 20-year-old rookie. Expecting him to be able to do what Dragic does consistently is unreasonable. Similar case with Nunn, although he's struggled in the bubble. Game 5 was by far and away his best game of the playoffs yet. If Dragic isn't able to play in Game 6, the Heat are going to need a couple of them to step up again to take some of the pressure off of Butler.
Pick your poison
Needing a basket late, the Heat once again went to a high pick-and-roll with Butler as the ball handler, only this time he received two screens.
On his left, Bam Adebayo. On his right, Jae Crowder. Butler decided to use Crowder's screen, resulting in Markieff Morris switching onto him.
The result? You know.
Is it sustainable? According to the matchup data, Butler is 6-for-16 from the field with Morris guarding him in the Finals. That makes Morris the only player on the Lakers to hold him below 50 percent shooting. Even so, it feels like Butler's eyes light up when anyone not named Anthony Davis switches onto him. Whenever he gets a switch, he immediately goes into attack mode. Switching hasn't been the answer through five games.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.