How Heat put LA’s celly on hold

The opening game of the NBA Finals couldn’t have gone worse for the Miami Heat. 

Starters Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic were injured, missing multiple games. A 23-10 lead was eradicated by an incredible 70-31 run that realistically ended the series.

Jimmy Butler sprained his ankle just before halftime too. Following a double-digit victory in Game 2, the brooms were out and Lakers fans were already dreaming about that 17th championship. Then Sunday night came along,

Anthony Davis took himself out of commission due to foul trouble and Butler became the first person ever to outscore, out-rebound and out-assist LeBron James in a Finals game. That stat includes James’ teammates, which combined with Butler’s retort in telling James he was “in trouble” as Game 3 ended after hearing the same in the opening quarter, means we have a series on our hands.

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I wrote that I expected these NBA Finals to go the distance prior to the series opener, but losing Adebayo and Dragic was crippling. Like everyone else, I expected a sweep. Paul Pierce predicted a 4-0  L.A. romp and never gets anything right, so it isn’t surprising that the Heat displayed some fight, but they need Adebayo back in the mix to actually make this a series.

James was visibly disappointed in Davis’ inability to avoid silly fouls as he took himself out of the equation in Game 3. Davis’ absence allowed Miami to concentrate on making everything difficult for the best player of his generation. While the Heat can’t count on that happening again, Adebayo’s likely return from the neck injury that sidelined him for multiple games gives them hope.

The Lakers have been tremendous this postseason but are nevertheless vulnerable to lapses in concentration and have attacked Miami’s zones by firing up 3-pointers at an unprecedented rate for them. At halftime of Game 1, L.A. had already attempted 27 shots from beyond the arc. Clearly, their analytics people reached Lawrence Frank, who consulted with Rick Pitino on how to best attack Miami’s zone to the point where they barely used it after Game 1.

With Adebayo returning, the Heat will have their top rebounder and best post defender back in a series where they have no room for error. Dragic tore his plantar fascia, which means he’d be compromised if he returns. The Slovenian former All-Star has been tremendous this postseason, but can’t be counted on if he’s not going to be 100 percent.

Fortunately, NBA Rookie of the Year runner-up Kendrick Nunn has found his rhythm with Dragic out, while fellow rookie standout Tyler Herro has been solid since joining the starting lineup. Dragic’s production can be replaced. Adebayo’s presence can’t be replicated.

The first-time All-Star was the difference in the Eastern Conference finals. His work helped fuel the upset. In the clincher against the Celtics, Adebayo finished with 32 points and 14 rebounds. He hasn’t been 100 percent since the first round, so even compromised, he’s set to be the difference maker. If Miami’s zone is going to be successful, Adebayo has to be entrenched down low. If the team is set to thrive in man-to-man, Adebayo has to shift to Davis duty after originally opening on Howard.

Butler secured a 40-point triple-double, something that has only been done by Jerry West and James in the NBA Finals. That won’t happen again, but it doesn’t have to for Miami to be successful. They simply need Adebayo back to anchor the defense and have to hope that the Lakers don’t shoot the ball as well as they have.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been an asset in stepping up as the third option in the Lakers starting lineup. If he’s knocking down shots from the perimeter, it really doesn’t matter who the Heat has out there.

Friday

Lakers vs. Heat:  As far as picks go, there are two themes I want you to watch. So long as Adebayo returns, the Heat are going to be able to better defend the Lakers. I do believe their fortunes are tied to the zone, so even though L.A. blew that up by rolling in Game 1, I would expect Miami to take its shot by breaking it out again. It allowed them to win the Boston series and seems like the best weapon here.

If Adebayo is moving around comfortably, I believe we’ll see this series go seven games. I therefore love the under and Miami plus the points in all remaining games. The Heat might be an underdog, but they arrived at the COVID-19 NBA Finals for a reason. They’re resilient. Don’t expect that to come to an abrupt ending. They’ll fight in Game 5. HEAT and UNDER

Last week: 0-2

Season: 44-31-2