Los Angeles Lakers’ role players Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard take credit for the performances in Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals. But swingmen Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope need to step up.
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It is perhaps unfair to spend too long talking about how a team that is 2-0 up in the NBA Finals, and a relatively straightforward 2-0 at that, needs other players to step up.
Having thoroughly dominated Game 1 and leading by double digits throughout the majority of Game 2, the Los Angeles Lakers have had a relatively easy time of it thus far, driven by the spectacular levels of play of their superstar duo LeBron James and Anthony Davis and further bolstered by injuries to important Miami Heat players Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo. So far, so good.
However, it is always necessary to keep working to improve, no matter how sweet the recent fortunes have been. With this in mind, when looking at the play of some of the rest of the Lakers’ rotation players, there could stand to be improvements from season-long contributors, as some are not performing at their best.
Not Rajon Rondo, certainly. It is said every year that Rondo bristles at the long-standing notion that there is such a thing as ‘Playoff Rondo’, the idea that he turns it on and/or tries harder in the postseason. Yet it is not usually meant pejoratively, especially when it is considered that the playoffs and the NBA Finals in particular are exactly where players are supposed to step up – the long NBA season is supposed to be one long crescendo – and Rondo has done so.
In addition to being the secondary ball-handling option and making some crafty plays out of the pick-and-roll as ever, Rondo has shot the ball from outside at a rate never seen previously from him.
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At the apex of a shooting improvement crescendo for him personally that has quietly but legitimately developed over the last five seasons, Rondo has hit 17 three-pointers in the postseason as a whole – for context, that is also the cumulative amount he has it in every other postseason since 2010 – and shot 3-of-4 with confidence in Game 2. The Heat’s zone defense kept giving Rondo the jumper, he kept taking it, and he kept making it in a 16-point, 10-assist overall performance. ‘Playoff Rondo’ is a good thing.
Not Dwight Howard, either. Although there is no obvious one-on-one defensive match-up for him in the series like there was with Nikola Jokic in the Western Conference Finals series against the Denver Nuggets, Howard has continued his season-long reimagination into a situational role player and sticks to the brief on the interior. He seems contented with not getting offensive opportunities beyond those availed by his size and athleticism, and mans the paint for a few minutes at a time so that Davis does not have to.
With Davis spending more time at the five (center) spot, particularly when guarded there by the less-than-physical Kelly Olynyk (who tries to play physically but who does not have much meat on the bones) and Meyers Leonard (who has the size but no predisposition to using it), Howard has not even recorded 20 minutes in either of the two contests so far. But in the time he has managed, he has stuck to his role. Between he and Rondo, the two relatively elderly former All-Stars are swallowing their pride, doing their bit, and doing it well.
Instead, the shortcomings in the rotation have largely come on the wing. Starting swingmen Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green have offensive roles that are nearly exclusively about spotting up for catch-and-shoot opportunities outside.
The pair are shooting a combined 80.5 per cent three-point rate in the two games so far (a measure of how many of their overall field goal attempts are from outside the line) but have hit only 8-of-33 of those shots cumulatively, and they are not contested attempts. Moreover, neither has done much to slow down Jimmy Butler and prevent him from getting to the rim, nor been the crispest at rotating onto the Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Jae Crowder shooting types for Miami.
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Compensating for the absence of Bam Adebayo and his rim protection on the interior, the Heat almost always played a zone defense in Game 2. Conventional thinking has always held that a zone defense gives up jump shooting opportunities, and thus has usually only ever been an occasional look at the NBA level, where the athletes are too good and the players too skilled to avail space off the catch in this way.
Miami’s scrambling and rotations in this zone, for the most part, were good, yet so was much of the Lakers’ ball and man movement. They were able to create shooting opportunities against the zone, often for these two. But they missed most of them.
Against a zone, it is harder for the Heat to play the physical style of basketball for which they have become synonymous, and harder to box out and clear the rebounding glass, especially against ‘AD’. The zone was more a requirement of the limitations of the available personnel and the need to buy time with the Leonard/Olynyk pairing (and subsequent lack of rim protection) than it was a calculated optimum strategy for containing the Lakers.
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It nevertheless can be somewhat effective if the shooters do not shoot. The Lakers certainly took a high volume of threes, including an NBA Finals-record 47 in Game 2. But while the volume was there, the efficiency was not, and the always-streaky pairing of ‘KCP’ and Green in particular missed some good opportunities.
It was also noticeable in the second half of Game 2 that, although they are absent their two key starters, the Heat’s offense still functioned crisply. Butler was getting into the paint and either getting to the free throw line or kicking the ball out, the shooters kept finding spots, Olynyk drew defensive attention in particular with his versatility, and everyone was willingly sharing the ball.
For a long time, the two teams were trading baskets, and were it not for the fact that Davis was proving so unstoppable down on the other end, it could have been a much more competitive game.
Certainly, the fact that the Heat do not have a good means of slowing Davis, particularly without Adebayo, is going to be the X-factor in this series, that is not something that is going to go away.
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But the Heat are not going to go away either. This team is plucky, committed and well coached, and if they can situationally attack the Lakers’ weakened wing and shallow bench, they will.
The zone defense looks like it is going to be a thing from here on out, and so the Lakers’ role players are going to have to break it open. Just like Rondo is doing.
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