Lakers Must Tighten Up Three-Point Defense to Keep Heat at Bay

Tyler Herro and Goran Dragic
Tyler Herro and Goran Dragic | Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers will face off against the Miami Heat in the strangest NBA Finals in history. Similar to the Eastern Conference Finals, it will be a tale of two teams: one loaded with lottery-caliber talent in Los Angeles and one greater than the sum of its parts in Miami. Jimmy Butler will take on LeBron James. Bam Adebayo will face his biggest test to date against Anthony Davis.

The biggest contrast between the two squads comes in the form of their preferred method of offense. The Heat love to shoot three-pointers. They averaged 35.4 attempts from deep per game during the regular season and made 37.9 percent of them, good for second in the league behind the Utah Jazz. The Lakers, meanwhile, are... not of the same mindset. They attempted only 31 per game in the regular season, placing them 23rd in the NBA, and made only 34.9 percent of those attempts.

The Heat will struggle to take away what the Lakers do best, which is score inside the three-point arc. Adebayo is an excellent defender but is giving up a bit in size to Davis, and Butler is in the same boat as the likely primary defender on James. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is entirely capable of making Miami's life miserable from beyond the arc with their defensive IQ and length. The Lakers' lives will be much easier if they can do it. That ability will determine just how close this series is.

During the regular season, the Lakers were good at preventing success from the three-point line, allowing only 34.9 percent shooting from deep. In the playoffs, though, it's been a slightly different story. Opposing squads have shot 36.2 percent from three over the first three rounds in the Orlando bubble against Los Angeles. That increase of success may be marginal, but it makes all the difference in the playoffs. The Lakers did play three very good three-point shooting teams over those first three rounds in Portland, Houston, and Denver, but letting the Heat hit 36 percent of their threes will not make for an easy road to success.

For all the mistakes the Boston Celtics made in the ECF, Brad Stevens teams are traditionally excellent defending the three-point line, and that was proven correct again over the last six games. Miami only hit 32 percent of their threes in the series. They still won, obviously, but it required multiple double-digit comebacks and really only one comfortable win, the final Game 6 victory where the Celtics gave up in the last two minutes and their three-point percentage was buoyed by a throwback performance from Andre Iguodala. That's the blueprint to beating Miami-- take away the three-pointer and force them to find point production via tough drives into the paint and long jumpers.

Los Angeles could very well win easily even if they don't do that. Such is the power of having LeBron and AD as your one-two punch. The Heat can and will make life difficult for them, but will be unable to fall back on schemes like the 2-3 zone they used to shut down Boston. That'll put their lesser defenders, like Tyler Herro and Goran Dragic, front-and-center, especially with LeBron's propensity to ruthlessly hunt such players to create mismatches. But it will be on the Lakers' guards and wings to do the same to Miami.

If the Heat find even moderate success from beyond the arc, they'll keep it close until the fourth quarter. And as we saw in the Boston series, the Heat know how to close. Whether they're down 10 or up 12, they will produce in crunchtime minutes. The key is to get far enough ahead that it doesn't play nearly as big of a factor. Having a big lead in the fourth-- incredible basketball insight, I know. But the Lakers will win this series if they can lock it down from beyond the arc. It's a tall task, but doable. And an important one, as all the numbers suggest.