Only one team gets to have the Larry O’Brien trophy. This year, it is the Los Angeles Lakers.
With this much-awaited championship is the deluge of sidebar stories—record-breaking achievements, historic feats, emotional journeys, tales of validation and vindication, all glorifying the exceptional performance of a team built for championship contention and the people behind it —all of these are appropriate and well-deserved, no doubt.
To the victor belongs the spoils—how apt and fitting. While this is true right now, it is not completely accurate because even if the trophy and the bragging rights and the celebration belong to the Lakers, there is something here of value and teams can benefit immensely from it: the art of clogging the arc.
In recent years, players have ventured further and further away from the three-point arc, and teams have utilized the proficiency of three-point shooting players to win relying on overwhelming, high-scoring offense. This, in part, gave birth to small ball and 3-and-D approaches to playing basketball which many teams (like Golden State and Houston) now use, allowing them varying degrees of success.
The threat of three-point shooters is legit, and teams have adapted to either capitalize on this or make sure they can defend well against a three-point shooting team. If they can do both, they are a tough team to beat.
Overmatched in size and length against the Lakers, the Miami Heat fought in the 2020 NBA Finals and won two games relying heavily on their three-point shooters and the threat of their three-point shooting to spread the floor and force LA to go small so that perimeter operators are given gaps and driving lanes to exploit. More importantly (and I think statistics do not directly reflect this), the three-point shooting facet in Miami’s offense gives inexperienced players like Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson the confidence they need so that they are not intimidated by the size, experience, and savvy of the Los Angeles Lakers.
There was no Game 7 because the Lakers found a way to ground the bombers of coach Eric Spoelstra, and the master class in defending shooters not only made Game 6 exciting to watch; it also made this game a solid reference when building a team’s playbook on defense.
Judging from the fact that no team is inclined to abandon three-point shooting anytime soon in the NBA, learning how to defend effectively against a potent outside shooting from no less than the reigning champions is a consolation prize to all 29 teams now dreaming of unseating the newly-crowned champs come the 2020-2021 season. It is a gift they should use wisely.
Jae Crowder was 1-of-5, Duncan Robinson was 3-of-7, Tyler Herro was 1-of-2, Andre Iguodala was 0-of-2, Kendrick Nunn was 2-of-4, Goran Dragic was 0-of-4. As a team known for its bevy of lethal three-point shooters, the team was 10-of-28; not only did they miss a lot of attempts because of the contest from defenders that stayed attached despite the screens and weaves, they were also denied a lot of times to even hoist an attempt because of the suffocating perimeter defense LA has unleashed from start to finish.
Without the confidence, momentum, and offensive rhythm shooters get from watching three-point shots go in, there was very little Herro and Robinson could do to impact the complexion of the game. While mathematically, the Heat can still come back from the halftime deficit with two quarters to play, the damage to the players’ confidence and resolve guaranteed the Lakers it was game over even before the second half of hostilities commenced.
It is an old, worn-out sound bite, to say that defense is the key to winning. Worse, it makes something complicated and ever-evolving a simplistic matter. With the practice of growing a roster with offensively-gifted players evident in the NBA, there is a very high demand for defense that works because it evolves and adapts.
Teams will have to wait for a full NBA calendar before one of them can steal the trophy from the Lakers. But right now, there is this one golden nugget of wisdom that is out there for the taking, for anyone or any team who can see its use and value.
Take a bow, Los Angeles Lakers. And the rest of the league, take notes.