AP Published 12:11 p.m. MT Sept. 25, 2020
LeBron James can reach a 10th NBA Finals, done by only three greats of the game.
Anthony Davis is on the verge of his first.
The final step for the Los Angeles Lakers shapes up as the toughest.
They have to knock out the Denver Nuggets, who have been on the brink of dismissal from the bubble six times and every time refused to go.
“You can never be comfortable around this team,” Davis said. “They have been in this situation twice. We’ve been in the situation twice. But both teams are familiar with these situations, but this team is not going to go away.”
Game 5 is Saturday. The Lakers have ended both their series thus far in five games.
But the Nuggets were also down 3-1 against both Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers, fell far behind in Game 5, and then battled back to not only win the game but eventually the series.
No team had ever erased two 3-1 deficits in one postseason and now the Nuggets need to do it a third time. It's a predicament they could have avoided, if they'd gotten one more defensive stop in Game 2 or given up a few less second-chance points in Game 4.
“These are all close games we’re playing,” guard Jamal Murray said. “Going to keep battling it out.”
Murray was sensational again in Game 4, though James slowed him enough down the stretch after taking on the defensive assignment to help the Lakers pull out a 114-108 victory.
One more win, and James ties NBA career scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for third on the career list with 10 NBA Finals appearances. Only Hall of Famers Bill Russell (12) and Sam Jones (11) of the Boston Celtics have gone to more.
It would be James' first with the Lakers after five appearances in Cleveland and four in Miami, and the Lakers' first trip to the finals since winning the last of their 16 championships in 2010.
James and Davis have been the unquestioned catalysts of this run, and they're good strong support from some playoff-tested veterans. Dwight Howard had 12 points and 11 rebounds Thursday in his first start of this postseason, helping send Los Angeles to its overwhelming 25-6 advantage in second-chance points.
Rajon Rondo contributed 11 points and moved into eighth place on the career list with seven more assists.
“In the postseason, every possession is so important,” James said. “When you can have guys that have been in the moments and can understand and also be able to make adjustments on the fly, and know that you can count on them down the stretch, it just makes the team and you individually feel so much more confident in the outcome.”
The younger Nuggets don't have those type of veterans, but they have the experience of this historic postseason run that could have ended on Aug. 25, the night of Game 5 against Utah. A month later, they are still at Disney World, still trying to prove that hope is not lost until four games are.
“I think people out there probably think this is exactly where we want them. It’s not. We would much rather be up 3-1, but it is what it is. We put ourselves in this position,” Denver coach Michael Malone said.
“Our team has shown tremendous resiliency and grit in getting out of these before. I have no doubt that tomorrow night we’ll bring that same fight to the game and hopefully we can keep this series alive.”
If they do, Game 6 would be Monday night. If not, the Lakers will be preparing to face Miami, in its first appearance since James left in 2014, or the Celtics, their greatest rival they could tie with a 17th NBA title.
The Lakers won't think about any of that until the Nuggets are finally gone.
“Like I said last game, we’ve got to put them away,” Davis said. “They are going to continue to fight, no matter what the score is, no matter what the situation is. We just have to make sure we counter everything they do.”
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THE LOS ANGELES Lakers entered the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals trailing the Denver Nuggets by 18 points when Lakers coach Frank Vogel called for a zone defense -- a strategic move NBA coaches once considered a last resort, but one that is becoming increasingly common this postseason.
The Lakers used their zone to rack up five steals in less than three minutes, cutting the lead down to as little as three points. And while the Nuggets recovered to win the game, the defensive switch nearly led to the second-biggest comeback of LeBron James' lengthy playoff career.
"As a coach, when your team gets down and you're looking for something to try to give your team a spark, you try to change the game," Vogel said. "Sometimes it's a lineup. Sometimes it's a coverage. Sometimes it's zone defense, throwing it out there, just to break their rhythm a little bit.
"It doesn't always work. It did tonight."
In the ongoing battle between NBA offenses and defenses, offenses have dominated recently. The past two seasons have produced the most efficient offense on record behind ever-growing numbers of 3-point shots.
"I think that the offense changed drastically, and the defense stayed pretty much the same for a while," Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, "and now I think the defense is starting to have to adjust to such a different and drastic style of offensive play."
The heavy use of zones has been a key adjustment this postseason. And now the zone defense, once disdained, has the potential to reshape this year's NBA Finals.
AS RECENTLY AS two seasons ago, the NBA zone defense -- which has been allowed since 2001-02, when the league removed the "illegal defense" rule preventing its use -- had all but gone extinct.
After peaking at 3% usage during the 2009-10 season, zone was used for just 638 plays in 2017-18, 0.2% of all possessions, according to Synergy Sports data. That was the culmination of six seasons of decline after zone defenses were more common in the NBA from 2009 through 2012, highlighted by the Dallas Mavericks' zone helping them upset the heavily favored Big Three Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals.
Seven years later, Miami played a key role in bringing the zone back in vogue.
On Dec. 20, 2018, the Heat used a zone defense to slow down reigning MVP James Harden in a nationally televised win over the Houston Rockets. Harden, who was amid a historic run of 32 consecutive games of scoring at least 30 points, went just 7-for-23 from the field against the unorthodox defense.
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Though Heat coach Erik Spoelstra dismissed the notion that there was any grand strategy behind turning to a zone a handful of games earlier -- "We did it because our man [defense] wasn't working," he said -- other coaches took notice of how much zone Miami was playing. The Heat used zone on more plays during the 2019-20 regular season, 802, than all 30 NBA teams combined in either 2016-17 or 2017-18. League-wide zone usage was up to 2.2% this season, its highest level since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
While Miami didn't need to use its zone to beat either the Indiana Pacers or Milwaukee Bucks, it has been a key factor in the Heat's building a 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference finals heading into Friday's Game 5 against the Boston Celtics (8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN).
Other coaches have taken notice. "One of the best things you can do is learn from real good coaches," Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "And Erik is a terrific coach, so it calls your attention to it, and then you have to figure out: Is this applicable to our team in some way?"
One big reason coaches have traditionally shunned the zone is that NBA players can shoot right over the top of it, but modern NBA zone defense is no longer so vulnerable to outside shooting.
"Teams have tinkered with zone rules and tinkered around the three-second rule for the middle man, so it's not your typical college 2-3 or 3-2 zone anymore," said Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey, who was the architect of the Mavs' 2011 defense.
"The way teams have bastardized the zone so much and tinkered with the zone, it's really a glorified switch."
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This helps explain why the Heat's zone was effective against Harden. Modern offensive superstars such as Harden all but demand that man-to-man defenses switch pick-and-rolls to keep up, which puts their defenders in uncomfortable positions -- guards defending post-ups and big men defending one-on-one on the perimeter. In a zone, those defenders stay where their coach wants them.
Spoelstra has also changed where those players are by putting two athletic forwards on the perimeter in the Heat's 2-3 zones, with the team's smaller guards playing on the wings in the back line. That has made Miami's zone defense more difficult for Boston to attack.
Snyder borrowed that innovation when Utah implemented a zone defense at midseason.
"Having more length at the top, that player has an opportunity to impact the offense two different ways," Snyder explained. "From the corner, there's one pass, essentially, one direction that you can go. From the top, a lot of times there's two different directions that someone can pass."
Despite their evolution, zones remain most vulnerable beyond the arc. So, their rise also required the NBA's shot math to change.
THE DECLINE IN zone defense over the past decade coincided with the NBA's love affair with the 3-pointer. But now, even with 3-pointers being attempted at record rates, zone is back on the rise.
"It's such an interesting contradiction," Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. "We are shooting 3s more than ever, so why would you play a zone?"
When the Mavericks used zone in the 2011 NBA Finals with Casey as their defensive coordinator, they were exposing a Miami weakness. At that point, before adding Shane Battier and unleashing Chris Bosh as a 3-point shooter, the Heat had a shortage of shooting.
Now, every team looks to have as much shooting on the floor as possible. Yet, there's a paradox to all these 3-pointers: In a counterintuitive twist, they've made controlling the area around the basket more important for opposition defenses.
There are two factors at play. First, five-out lineups in which every player on the court can shoot 3s have made it hard for defenses to cover enough ground to load up the paint against players driving from the perimeter and also get out to shooters.
"I think it's either-or," said Casey, whose perspective is borne out by the data. "You're going to do one or the other. It's hard to do both."
The NBA playoffs have advanced to the conference finals at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex.
• Why zone defense is on the rise• The embodiments of Miami Heat culture• Anthony Davis' high-stakes playoffs
• First Look: East finals | West finals• Expert picks for the conference finals
Second, shots at the rim are simply more valuable. The average attempt in the restricted area was worth 1.27 points this season, as compared to 1.17 points for the average 3-point attempt from the corners and 1.05 points for 3-pointers taken from elsewhere on the court.
Because of that math, job No. 1 for a modern NBA defense is preventing opponents from getting to the rim, even more than preventing 3-pointers.
Among the NBA's top 10 defenses in 2019-20, just one team (the Philadelphia 76ers) ranked in the top eight in preventing 3-pointers. Conversely, four of the top 10 (including Milwaukee and Toronto) were among the eight teams that allowed the most 3-point attempts.
However, six of this year's top 10 defenses were in the top eight in preventing shots in the restricted area around the basket, per analysis of data from NBA Advanced Stats, and none in the bottom eight.
It's here where the zone shines. Per Second Spectrum tracking, teams shot 3s far more frequently against zones (53% of their shot attempts, as compared to 38% of shot attempts against man-to-man defense). But zone defenses dramatically reduced shots in the restricted area, from 26% of attempts against man-to-man to just 16% against zone.
The increased emphasis on protecting the rim, and the zone's effectiveness in doing so, has led three of the four teams in the conference finals to use zone this round. Only the Denver Nuggets, who are down 3-1 in the West finals, have yet to break it out.
UNLIKE IN COLLEGE basketball, where legendary coaches such as Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and retired longtime Temple coach John Chaney built their defenses around exclusive use of 2-3 zones, NBA teams have found it more effective as a counterpunch. Overall, Second Spectrum tracking shows zone defenses giving up slightly more points per possession (1.12) than man-to-man defenses (1.11).
"It's a different look," Vogel said. "Most zones in the NBA are not very good; there's a lot of holes in them and can be easily exploited. It doesn't always happen, but that's why most of the league does not play zone for long stretches."
Still, as Brooks notes, zones have value by taking offenses out of what they typically want to do.
"When you [face] a man-to-man defense, you can run a pattern," Brooks said. "You know that if they guard it this way, OK this will be open, and, if they guard it this way, [then] this will be open. So you have your check points as a player and as a coach.
"But in a zone, it's a little bit of organized chaos. You have gray areas. ... You have some concepts, but you really have to be free-flowing. You really have to have a really stronger-IQ basketball team to be able to attack it consistently."
No coach has made better use of zones to mix things up than Nurse, recently voted Coach of the Year. During last year's NBA Finals against an injury-depleted Golden State Warriors team, Nurse went to a zone defense typically seen in high school -- a box-and-one -- to thwart Warriors star Stephen Curry. He went back to it again during this year's Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston to try to slow down Kemba Walker after he tore apart Toronto's defense early in the series.play
Mark Schwarz gets the lowdown on the Raptors' unorthodox box-and-one defense, which Steph Curry described as "janky."
"I've coached in a lot of playoff games now, a lot of playoff series and a lot of NCAA tournament games," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after Boston's Game 7 victory. "I'd say we saw more defenses and more stuff ... right when something worked, the next play it didn't work anymore. That's a credit to them."
After outlasting the Raptors, the Celtics have struggled against Miami's 2-3 zone in the conference finals. They've averaged just 1.04 points per possession on the 113 possessions marked by Second Spectrum data as against zone, down from 1.19 points per possession against man-to-man, while shooting 29% from 3-point range. In a series in which the Heat's three wins have come by a combined 11 points, those possessions loom large.
Between players getting more and more creative with the ball in their hands, an influx of quality shooters at every position on the court, and rules being created and enforced to aid offense, defenses are left in a nearly impossible spot. The goal isn't to take away everything from an offense, but to keep them from going to what it is they want to do most.
"It's going to be hard for defense to trump offense like it used to in the late '90s," former Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown said earlier this year.
Still, that won't stop coaches from trying.
"The game has changed," Brooks said. "I think zone defense is going to be taking place more and there's going to be more creativity, and someone is going to come up with something that is totally different than the last guy."
Will LeBron James be back in the NBA Finals up against one of his former teams? It's not a certainty, but that's the way things are shaping up in the NBA playoffs.
On Thursday night, James led the Los Angeles Lakers to a Game 4 win over the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, moving them one win away from a spot in the NBA Finals. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Miami Heat are also one victory away from reaching the championship game after notching a Game 4 victory over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night.
It's not a shock that the Lakers, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, are in this position. But it's been a surprise run from the Heat, who are the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and took down the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the second round. They now have the No. 3-seeded Celtics on the brink of elimination.
With both series getting closer to their conclusions, here's everything you need to know about the upcoming action in the NBA playoffs.
Remaining Conference Finals Schedule
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Friday, Sept. 25
Game 5: No. 5 Miami Heat at No. 3 Boston Celtics, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Saturday, Sept. 26
Game 5: No. 3 Denver Nuggets at No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers, 9 p.m. ET, TNT
Sunday, Sept. 27
Game 6 (if necessary): No. 3 Boston Celtics at No. 5 Miami Heat, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Monday, Sept. 28
Game 6 (if necessary): No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers at No. 3 Denver Nuggets, TBD, TNT
Game 7 (if necessary): No. 3 Boston Celtics at No. 5 Miami Heat, TBD, TBD
Wednesday, Sept. 30
Game 7 (if necessary): No. 3 Denver Nuggets at No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers, TBD, TNT
NBA Title Odds
Los Angeles Lakers: -330 (bet $330 to win $100)
Miami Heat: +350 (bet $100 to win $350)
Boston Celtics: +1400
Denver Nuggets: +3600
Odds obtained via FanDuel.
Conference Finals Storylines
Can Heat Continue Torrid Run on Friday Night?Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
It's been a remarkable run by the Heat in the playoffs. They are 11-2 in the postseason and have already taken down two strong teams in the Bucks and Indiana Pacers. Now, they are one win away from eliminating the Celtics and reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 2014 (which was their last season with James).
In Game 4, Miami showcased exactly how it's been playing so well. Four Heat players score at least 20 points, and the team also had a huge performance off the bench from 20-year-old rookie guard Tyler Herro, who scored 37 points on 14-of-21 shooting.
And despite its recent success, Miami isn't complacent. Not even the youngster.
"There's a lot of work to be done still," Herro said, according to the Associated Press (h/t ESPN).
The Heat's work in the Eastern Conference Finals could be done if they win Friday's Game 5. Although the Celtics played a seven-game series against the Toronto Raptors in the second round, this is the first time they have faced a deficit in the playoffs—and a 3-1 hole isn't easy to overcome.
History is also on Miami's side. The Heat have never lost a playoff series in which they have held a 3-1 lead. So if the Celtics are able to come back, it would be a historically impressive feat.
Will Lakers Prevent Another Nuggets Comeback?
A 3-1 lead is a great thing to have in an NBA playoff series. More often than not, the team with that advantage is going to finish off the series and advance.
The Nuggets wouldn't know. They have trailed 3-1 in each of their first three series this postseason. They rallied back to beat both the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games in the first two rounds. And now they are looking to do the same thing against the Lakers.
However, Los Angeles is the best team Denver has faced yet. And it proved that Thursday, when James and Anthony Davis combined for 60 points to power the Lakers to a 114-108 Game 4 win. Davis had 34 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals, while James had 26 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.
"We played great down the stretch," Davis said, according to the Associated Press (h/t ESPN). "We played great overall. Still some things that we can fix if we want to put this thing away."
The Lakers will have the opportunity to do just that Saturday in Game 5. Los Angeles won each of its first two playoff series in five (against the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets), and it could be on its way to doing the same against Denver. Unless the Nuggets find some more playoff magic and begin another improbable comeback, that is.
If Denver wins Game 5, then it will be interesting to see whether it can build some momentum against a team as talented as L.A., which appears certain to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.