The Lakers are up 3-1 on the Heat, one game away from yet another championship, despite spending the evening fumbling around on offense against a disciplined, entrenched defense that did its job and forced, let’s say, 46 minutes of decidedly paranoid basketball. It is hard to argue that L.A.’s offensive process was more sound in Game 4, and yet it is harder still to argue that it matters, because the simple fact is that if both teams have stalemated each other into strings of uncomfortable possessions where superstars are denied shots at or around the rim at all cost, then the Lakers are always going to win that sort of game because they have Anthony Davis, the actual best defender on the planet, and LeBron James, the best everything-elser.
Miami and Los Angeles attacked James and Jimmy Butler, respectively, in the same way: Defenders dove under screens, offering each player unencumbered looks from three in exchange for both a wall of limbs and the denial of favorable matchups, the sort of which both players thrive on. No mismatches, and no free shots in the paint. Without Goran Dragic, Miami didn’t have their most dynamic shot creation threat, so they weren’t nearly as ready to punish L.A.’s extra defensive attention as they could have been. Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro got theirs, though not at a high volume, and the knock-on effects of Dragic’s absence were Kendrick Nunn’s 2-for-11 night, a bench that made four shots, and minus-11 from Butler.
Meanwhile, the Lakers don’t appear to really have much of a structured half-court offense, like, at all, so they bled shot clocks and spent what felt like three quarters of their possessions standing around, making one pass, and either taking some sort of strained shot or coughing it up. Miami absolutely would not let the Lakers run, and it felt like their best shot production came after offensive rebounds, when Rajon Rondo or James could read the chaos for a nice easy pass. Anthony Davis spent most of the game either spinning into double teams from comfortable positions or forced to make the catch in an uncomfortable position. The Lakers do not have a third player who can both hit a shot and create one, unless you’re feeling really good about Alex Caruso, so they found themselves in a similar predicament to Miami’s.
And so, in a stalemate where neither team’s Other Guys distinguish themselves (a couple of KCP shots aside), the team that can get a dozen perfect LeBron James plays and rely on Anthony Davis to snap shut like a Venus fly trap is simply going to win. Davis was the difference, especially down the stretch. His line: Four blocks, three forced shot-clock violations in the fourth quarter, 42 minutes spent smothering the life out of the Heat, the game-sealing three, and the super-duper game-sealing block on Jimmy Butler moments later.
The point arrived at by most of the NBA-observing world after Davis murdered the Nuggets with a buzzer-beating three was that it is unfair and kind of incomprehensible that a person shaped like Davis could do something like can a game-winner from deep. That is remarkable, but it is equally impressive that he can guard every player on the court at all times and will almost always make the right read or swoop out of the rafters at the right time to erase an otherwise perfect play. You are not going to win an ugly game going up against him. No player really stood out on the box score in Game 4, but here is the most meaningful pair of stats from Game 4: Davis was plus-17; James was minus-two.