The NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat have featured some supernova individual performances from some of the league's brightest stars.
But while LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, and Anthony Davis have justifiably hogged the spotlight, there's another player who's been central to everything that's been going on at both ends of the floor.
Duncan Robinson is in many ways the key to the whole series.
It's no secret Robinson is a vital piece of Miami's offense; that's been the case all season long. But his importance has rocketed even higher in the Finals as the Lakers' swarming defense has shrunk the floor and snuffed out so many of the Heat's actions. Robinson isn't the kind of player we'd typically deem a "creator" because he spends little time with the ball in his hands, and when he does get it, it's almost exclusively to shoot. But with his constant off-ball movement, and his gravity as both a screener and a spot-up threat, he's created as much for his team as any player not named Butler.
Though he struggled to find his own offense early in the Finals, going scoreless in Game 1 and shooting just 5-for-20 from 3-point range through the first three games, Miami has scored 17.6 more points per 100 possessions in the series with him on the floor. Over the past three games, during which he's finally been able to shake loose and find the range on his jumper, no player for either team has produced a better on-court scoring margin than Robinson's plus-39. On the flip side, the Heat have been outscored by 31 points in 35 minutes across those three games with him on the bench.
On an individual level, Robinson came up huge in Game 5, splashing seven threes on his way to 26 points in the Heat's season-saving win. But, while we can't minimize the importance of those threes - every one of which was absolutely needed - Robinson's offensive value in the game, and in this entire series, goes well beyond made shots. It can perhaps best be appreciated on plays that seem, on the surface, to have nothing to do with him.
Take Miami's first offensive possession of Game 5, a lob dunk for Bam Adebayo out of a dribble-handoff with Tyler Herro. This was able to happen in large part because the Heat had Robinson stationed as the only player on the weak side. That left Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with the impossible choice of whether to stick close to Robinson or abandon him to tag Adebayo on the roll:
That's a tactic the Heat also used to great effect in the East finals against Boston.
Here's another, even subtler example. Miami ran a baseline out-of-bounds play in which Robinson curled around an Adebayo screen toward the ball-side corner. LeBron, guarding Jae Crowder in the weak-side corner, expected Dwight Howard to jump out and take away the Robinson catch-and-shoot, so he pre-emptively rotated to the paint to prevent Adebayo from slipping free to the rim. That gave Crowder an open corner three:
Butler has been otherworldly in The Finals, but he wouldn't be able to do what he's been doing without Robinson. Countless times in Game 5 he seemed to get himself stuck, only for Robinson to magically spring open, either by drifting to the corner when Butler drove baseline or lifting to the top when he drove middle. Five of Butler's 11 assists went to Robinson, all of them for threes.
So much of Miami's offense in the game simply came down to Butler targeting his preferred Lakers defender in the pick-and-roll, with Robinson spacing the floor around him. When Butler was able to force the switch on those actions, he'd instantly put the rest of the Lakers on high alert, as they knew they might need to bring emergency help. That's when Robinson took advantage of inattention from his defender - either Caldwell-Pope or Danny Green - and darted into open space.
His constant relocation was key. Why wait for a screen from one of his own guys when Robinson could simply manipulate defenders into screening each other?
Because of how little time and space he needs to get his shot off, Robinson's gravity as a handoff threat is particularly strong. That's been especially helpful in countering the Lakers' defensive strategy of having Davis guard Butler by sagging back and dipping under screens. Robinson has been a crucial release valve, forcing L.A.'s defenders to play closer to Butler when the Heat use him as a handoff initiator and screener.
His ability to magnetize the screen defender on those actions is also hugely beneficial when he plays off Adebayo, because the Lakers don't want to switch a small onto Miami's dynamic center, which often means sending two guys to the ball. Two plays from the fourth quarter of Game 5 illustrate this. On the first, Adebayo is able to fake the handoff and rumble unimpeded to the rim. On the second, Robinson draws the screen defender (Markieff Morris) up to the level of the ball, forcing Davis to drop down to deter Adebayo on the roll, which opens up the skip pass to Butler on the wing for a clean mid-range jumper:
Robinson is also leveraging his gravity in order to put the ball on the floor and attack closeouts in a way we've never really seen him do. He's driven the ball 10 times in the past three games, after doing so just 16 times through the first 17 games of the postseason. That's allowed him to flash some surprisingly adept playmaking chops. The 12 assists he's racked up between Game 2 and 5 are the most he's produced in any four-game stretch this postseason:
So, that's the offensive side of the equation. But equally significant to Robinson's outsized role in this series is the way the Lakers have made him a focal point at the other end of the floor, dragging him into nearly every screening action when LeBron has the ball.
To stay out of switches, Robinson is trying to hedge and recover every time, staying with LeBron long enough to allow Butler to recover but not too long that he loses track of his man altogether. The results have been mixed - James was outrageously good in Game 5 - but Robinson has done about as good a job in those scenarios as you could ask for.
LeBron wants to attack Robinson because he's one of Miami's weaker defenders, and because the hard hedges open big creases he can attack with drives or passes. Oftentimes, the Heat only survive those scenarios by the grace of cold shooting from the Lakers' guards.
We saw that play out on the Lakers' final offensive possession of Game 5, when James brought Robinson's man (Green) up to screen, then rejected the screen and wound up pulling Robinson with him on the drive. That left Green wide-open above the break with a chance to take a two-point lead in the dying seconds. Green, of course, clanked the straightaway three, but the Lakers' process on the play was sound.
Another layer to Lebron's Robinson-hunting approach is the knowledge of how important he is to the Heat at the offensive end. Whether by turning him into a defensive liability, or simply wearing him down mentally and physically, the Lakers' goal is to eat into his value. Unfortunately for them, Robinson has played 109 minutes over the last three games, and Miami's defense has performed significantly better with him on the floor.
So, let's just take a step back and appreciate the sheer physical toll of what Robinson is being asked to do. At one end of the floor he's navigating screens, hedging out to try and stop one of the most physical players in the world from turning the corner, and then traveling a significant distance to recover to his original assignment. At the other end, he's constantly cutting, relocating, and sprinting off of screens, trying to sow chaos and divert attention even on plays that aren't designed for him. He ran an estimated 2.8 miles in Game 5, according to NBA Advanced Stats, and still managed to get his legs into his jumper late, burying two big fourth-quarter threes.
If the Lakers continue to lose track of him at the offensive end, and fail to tire him out or make him a liability on defense, they may well find themselves in a winner-take-all Game 7.