“When it rains, it pours,” Butler said. “We definitely need [Adebayo and Dragic]; don’t get me wrong. But I’ve always said next man up when a man goes down. I’m okay. I always say nobody cares as long as I suit up and go out there and compete.”
The Lakers’ 116-98 victory in Game 1 was a nightmare in every sense for the Heat, which couldn’t slow LeBron James, couldn’t handle Anthony Davis, couldn’t defend Los Angeles’s shooters and couldn’t catch a break on the health front. Miami entered the series as the underdog, needing to rely on its balanced offense and disciplined defense to overcome the combined talent advantage presented by James and Davis. Now the Heat is in full scramble mode with its roster in triage.
The Heat’s health woes are the latest reminder of the central role that injuries have played throughout the NBA’s restart. There was concern in league circles about the possibility of injuries when the NBA first announced its plans to pick up its season in July after a four-month restart because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The league proceeded with a gradual return, with teams participating in individual practices, full-squad practices, scrimmages and regular season games before proceeding to the playoffs. Even so, health concerns have been a persistent factor throughout the run-up to the Finals, and now they threaten to suck the excitement out of the championship series.
At every step of the way, both the Lakers and Heat have benefited from injuries to their opponents. In the Lakers’ first-round series, Portland Trail Blazers all-star guard Damian Lillard couldn’t finish the series because of a knee injury and forward Zach Collins missed the entire series with an ankle injury.
Los Angeles’s second-round matchup with Houston was more compelling on paper than in practice, in part because Rockets all-star guard Russell Westbrook contracted the coronavirus before bubble play began and suffered a quadriceps injury shortly before the playoffs. In the Western Conference finals, the Denver Nuggets were without forward Will Barton because of knee soreness and standout guard Jamal Murray suffered a knee contusion late in the series.
Miami’s path to the Finals told a similar story. In the first round, the Heat swept the Indiana Pacers, who were without all-star center Domantas Sabonis with a foot injury and who received inconsistent contributions from all-star guard Victor Oladipo, who missed most of the season with a knee injury.
The Heat soundly defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round, but MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo suffered multiple ankle injuries that kept him out of the series finale. Midway through the Eastern Conference finals, the Boston Celtics welcomed back Gordon Hayward from a month-long injury absence, but the veteran forward was kept to a bench role and never truly got on track.
Of course, the Lakers and Heat have encountered their own adversity. Los Angeles lost guard Rajon Rondo to a broken hand before the regular season resumed, and Davis suffered a scary ankle injury during Game 4 of the West finals. Rondo has returned to the court and played key minutes in recent weeks, and Davis was able to quickly return to full form.
The defining question now is how Miami will cope with its three leading scorers banged up. Butler is Miami’s heart and soul and its best individual defensive option against James. Dragic is a key ballhandler and playmaker. Adebayo has been one of the bubble’s breakout stars, and he is the only player on Miami’s roster with the requisite size, strength and quickness to defend Davis.
“At this point, it’s all hands on deck,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Our depth has been one of our biggest strengths.”
Sometimes in these situations, the favored team relaxes knowing that its opponent is wounded or missing key players. James seems intent on avoiding complacency, recalling the pain of squandering a big lead in Game 2 of the 2011 Finals when he played for the Heat. The Dallas Mavericks rode a fourth-quarter comeback to a 95-93 win and took the series in six games, marking perhaps the toughest defeat of James’s career.
“The best teacher in life is experience,” James said. “I’ve experienced moments in my career where you have all the momentum in the world and you felt like you had the game under control and one play here or one play there could change the course of a series or change the course of a game. [Dwyane Wade] hits a three right by their bench. It put us up [15 points with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter]. From that moment on, Dallas went on a hell of a run and finished it off with a Dirk Nowitzki left-hand layup to steal that game. That s--- burns me to this day.”