"Stat Just Happened" is our new series where we'll pair an important stat with how it actually unfolded on the floor. Our aim? To answer key questions, uncover hidden truths and peel back the curtain on why some numbers matter more than others.
Today, Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis takes the spotlight.
According to NBA.com, that's how many minutes Anthony Davis defended Jimmy Butler in Game 4 of the 2020 NBA Finals.
Why is it noteworthy? It was way up from the first three games of the series.
In Game 1, Davis guarded Miami Heat forward Jae Crowder almost exclusively. In Games 2 and 3, he split his time between Crowder and Kelly Olynyk, the latter of whom saw his minutes increase with Bam Adebayo being sidelined with a neck injury. In Game 4, he barely guarded Crowder and Olynyk, spending the bulk of his minutes matched up with Butler instead.
Butler still had a big game statistically - he finished an assist shy of his second straight triple-double with 22 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists - but it paled in comparison to what he was able to do in Game 3. The matchup data points to Davis being a big reason for that. The most telling of all: Butler attempted five field goals in the nearly eight minutes Davis defended him. In the nearly five minutes LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma defended him, he attempted 11.
It wasn't just that Butler was 1-for-5 when Davis was defending him. It's that Butler wasn't able to get up nearly as many shots with Davis defending him.
What's interesting is that the Lakers tweaked their game plan as the game progressed. Even though they opened with Davis guarding Butler, they continued to switch pick-and-rolls in the first quarter, which helped Butler get into a rhythm as he targeted the likes of Howard and Kuzma, players who lack either the foot speed or strength to keep him in front of them.
Butler scored 11 of his 22 points in the first quarter, doing so on a perfect 5-for-5 shooting from the field.
It was after that that the Lakers changed their approach by having Davis go under every screen Butler was involved in rather than gifting him the switch he was looking for.
The risk of going underneath screens that aggressively is it leaves the Lakers vulnerable to pull-ups, but Butler hasn't been an efficient pull-up shooter this season. According to NBA.com, he was one of 150 players to attempt at least 100 pull-up jumpers during the regular season. Of those 150 players, Butler ranked 144th with an effective field goal percentage of 33.4 percent.
While Butler is capable of pulling up from midrange, he rarely looks to pull-up from 3. (Of the 262 pull-ups he attempted in the regular season, 189 were from 2-point range and 73 were from 3-point range. He's posted similar splits in the playoffs). Because he's not much of a threat to pull-up from the perimeter, Davis could fly underneath screens and close out short to prevent Butler from getting into the paint, where he did the bulk of his damage in his historic Game 3. That made it difficult for Butler to get to his spots in pick-and-rolls and isolation, two plays that have made up nearly half of his scoring this season.
Davis guards mostly power forwards and centres, but he's nimble enough to keep up with guards and forwards off the dribble. He's also a mountain of a man to score against in the paint, standing 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan.
Davis blocked four shots in Game 4 and altered many more with his length.
There were a few times where Davis got caught up in screens and Butler was able to get downhill...
...but there were far more times where Davis recovered in time to force the Heat into their secondary action, resulting in a heavy dose of handoffs with Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro, as well as a number of possessions in which Miami used Butler as a screener.
The result? Butler had a hand in Robinson (17) and Herro (21) having their highest-scoring games of the Finals, but Butler cooled off following his explosive first quarter, scoring 13 points on 4-for-13 shooting the rest of the way. It helped the Lakers outscore the Heat by 14 points in the 39 minutes Butler was on the court in Game 4, giving him the second-worst plus/minus on the team.
The Lakers will almost certainly live with Robinson and Herro having bigger games if it means Butler isn't imposing his will offensively. It puts a lot of pressure on the Heat to find a way to get Butler going again in Game 5, because if Davis is able to have a similar amount of success defending him as he did in Game 4, it's hard to imagine the Heat being able to generate enough offence to beat this Lakers team three more times.
It's where the loss of Goran Dragic is felt the most. With him, the Heat might be able to overcome Davis neutralizing Butler. Without him, the Heat don't have a clear answer.
Unfortunately for the Heat, it's still unclear if Dragic will be able to return in this series. And now that they're down 3-1, their one loss away from their season coming to an end.
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