In 1989, just days before tipoff of the Lakers-Pistons NBA Finals, Byron Scott suffered a terrible hamstring injury and was finished before he started. You say the Lakers still had Magic Johnson, who won MVP that season. Well, yeah, but halfway through Game 2, he was done too, another Laker star hamstrung by a damaged hamstring.
For the rest of that series, or what was left of it, whatever segment of the basketball audience that didn’t drift away was treated to generous doses of David Rivers and Tony Campbell against Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson. If you weren’t born yet or weren’t into basketball then or simply missed it, well, it went just as you might imagine. It was an anti-climatic Pistons sweep and … you see where we’re going with this?
Here at the 2020 Finals, the Miami Heat were down two very important players Friday for Game 2 and unsurprisingly are now halfway to oblivion in this series after getting swamped by the Lakers again, 124-114. It’s such a raw deal, for a No. 5 seed that scrapped its way through the East and arrived with the underdog’s twinkle, for the fans who stayed patient through a pandemic-interrupted season only to see a short-changed Finals. For them, and for Pat Riley.
Riley, you see, coached that Lakers team three decades ago, and he built this Heat team, and this is now the second time in his substantial basketball career where he’s been dealt pain and misery at the absolute wrong time. Obviously, this series isn’t over yet, not officially anyway, but that sound you just heard is the fat lady clearing her throat.
There’s two more games, minimum, for Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic to heal in a hurry, two more games for some suspense to infiltrate the locked-down Disney campus, and if none of that happens, then the only realistic drama will be when Anthony Davis and LeBron James arm wrestle for the Finals MVP award.
There’s a developing sense of deflation about this series, and the powerful scent of finality wafting in. This has plenty to do with the fractured state of the Heat combined with the gargantuan presence of Davis and LeBron. It’s a concoction that’s fortifying the Lakers and poisoning the Heat.
Yes, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra became big mad at a postgame question about the perception of The Finals being already over two games in, saying “We don’t give a [crap] what the world thinks.” But his team better bring that same energy starting Sunday in Game 3. And even if they do, will it really be enough?
Seriously, what switch can Miami flip at this point? Adebayo suffers from neck and shoulder issues while Dragic has a plantar fasciitis injury. Maybe Adebayo recovers in time for Game 3; Dragic has lingering pain in his foot and that could restrict him should he play. Adebayo is the only interior defender on a team that’s getting mutilated in the paint. Dragic is Miami’s leading scorer in the playoffs and a valued shot creator. There’s only one day off before the next game, which means the scheduling is showing no sympathy for the wounded, either.
Spoelstra implored his team passionately, maybe even desperately, to find “another level.” But there’s only so many more stairs that a young team without a superstar — all due respect to Jimmy Butler — is capable of climbing. It might be more wishful thinking and motivational talk than anything else.
The bigger problem for the Heat is that they offer little resistance for LeBron and Davis even if Adebayo and Dragic are good to go. The two superstars took turns walloping Miami once again, delivering 65 points and 23 rebounds of punishment, just too much size and flex and talent for Miami to handle, especially around the rim.
When you got two guys who want to win as bad as we do and be dominant every game, you have games like we had tonight.”
— Anthony Davis on relationship with LeBron
“We want to do whatever it takes to help our team win,” said Davis. “When you got two guys who want to win as bad as we do and be dominant every game, you have games like we had tonight.”
Lakers coach Frank Vogel said: “They attack the defense. They both have the ability to score against single coverage. They both have that elite ability to read defenses. Both are extremely determined to win the championship and bring the ability to play at an elite level.”
It’s gotten to the point where reporters are comparing LeBron and Davis to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal during that early 2000s Lakers dynasty, mainly because this series isn’t giving us anything else to discuss. And that’s the point: LeBron and Davis are battling Laker history more than they are the Heat. Like, which one is Kobe? Which one is Shaq? We’ve already arrived at that stage in the search for talking points.
“To be in the conversation with those two guys is very humbling,” LeBron said.
For the record, Davis is averaging 33 points on a lethal 63% shooting mainly because Miami can’t put a body on him within 15 feet of the rim; he also had eight offensive rebounds. LeBron flirted once again with a triple double in Game 2, coming up a rebound and assist short along with 33 points, and is directing his team like Coppola did “The Godfather”.
Spoelstra tried throwing a zone defense at the Lakers and it largely backfired; LA was 33-of-50 on 2-point shots and at one point their overall field-goal percentage was even better than that. Miami can’t offer much resistance against the Lakers, even on a night when L.A. misfired for dreadful stretches from deep. The Lakers had 68 points by halftime, and that’s when a Miami team must ask itself some very hard questions.
“It just goes to playing hard, putting your nose to the ball … we didn’t rebound, we didn’t get back on defense,” said Butler. “We got to stop them from dunking and getting layups and free throws. If we do that we might be all right.”
Butler played all but three minutes and was more active earlier than normal; his 25 points, eight rebounds and 13 assists were badly needed production. And Kelly Olynyk did something with his increased playing time by scoring 24 points in 37 minutes.
Yet once again, Miami’s margin for error in this series is linguine-thin. Collectively, the group must overachieve, if that’s possible, and time is running short.
“It’s not over,” Butler said. “We’re just down 0-2.”
Well, sure, that’s factual.
“I think if we get more shots up we’re in a better position,” he added. “I like what we’ve been doing. We just got to play harder and really get locked in. We do that, we turn this thing around.”
Yes, more positive talk.
And about Bam and Dragic, who aren’t feeling 100%?
“Yeah, we miss those guys for what they do on both ends of the floor. They wanted to play. We need those guys and want those guys but we want them to have a long career and whenever they do get back in the series, we want them to be ready to go.”
Three decades ago, Pat Riley’s former team scrambled for answers and solutions after suffering a pair of injuries and never found them. The 1989 Finals wobbled and staggered toward a quick finish that everyone saw coming.
And so here we are, once again.
For Riley, this is developing into a case of déjà-boo-hoo. For the Heat, this a challenge that’s probably beyond their capabilities. For the viewing audience, this will really test its love and patience for basketball. For LeBron James and Anthony Davis, this Finals MVP award could be the biggest battle they’ll see in the series.
For the 2020 NBA Finals, unless the basketball gods are setting us up, this looks like a wrap.
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