Behind the unkept mustache and scraggly beard, the sly smile belied all that felt dire in the wake of Miami’s devastating loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Jimmy Butler twisted his left ankle.
Goran Dragic ripped the plantar fascia in his left foot.
Bam Adebayo winced in agony with a neck strain.
Still, Butler smiled pondering the possibility of picking up the pieces against this high-powered Lakers squad, even with Dragic and Adebayo officially listed as doubtful for Friday’s Game 2 (9 ET, ABC) of this best-of-seven series.
“You’re talking about adversity,” Butler said. “For us, we thrive in that. If you look at it, everybody thought they were going to do that to us anyway. They probably think they’re going to do it to us three more times in a row. I beg to differ. Nobody picked us to be here. We embrace it. We love it. We know that we can win; we do. But we know we’ve got to play perfect, man. So, coming into Game 2, all the adversity, backs against the wall, yadda, yadda, yadda, we’re gonna win.”
But how, potentially down two starters, facing a dominant and fully healthy Lakers team that led by as many as 32 points in Game 1, after climbing out of a 13-point hole?
That’s the question left to answer for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, one of the game’s brightest minds, but definitely not some magical healer. The plan is to lean on depth from a bench that outscored the Los Angeles Lakers reserves 49-21 — largely due to it playing more minutes because of injuries — and a progression through “Plan A, Plan B, [and] Plan C” as Spoelstra explained, with first-team NBA All-Rookie guard Kendrick Nunn (18 points on 8-for-11 shooting off the bench in Game 1) likely rejoining the starting lineup and veterans Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard (49 starts this season) expected to log more minutes if needed to replace the irreplaceable Adebayo.
Olynyk is averaging 5.8 points and 4.2 rebounds in the playoffs. Nunn, meanwhile, started 67 games during the regular season, averaging 15.3 points, before Spoelstra elected to play Dragic more minutes along with Tyler Herro and Jae Crowder in the playoffs. Nunn arrived at the NBA bubble 25 days late after testing positive for COVID-19, and largely fell out of Spoelstra’s postseason rotation.
Spoelstra expressed confidence in players such as Nunn and Olynyk taking on larger roles, while pointing out that Duncan Robinson, who took just three shots in Game 1, needs to step up his aggression to provide Miami more of a “catch-and-shoot element” in Game 2.
“It’s not like they haven’t played this year,” Spoelstra said. “Those guys have both played significant roles for us at different times in the season, and we’ve seen them play extremely well here in a practice setting. I said it last night: it’s more from a human standpoint for K-Nunn to have to go through COVID. That’s something that’s real. You have empathy for him. He’s really worked behind the scenes. We have confidence in him. The other series played out just the way we felt would be best for those series. But he didn’t put his tail between his legs and just feel sorry for himself. That’s not how he got to this point. This guy has great competitive character.”
Nunn showed it in his 20 minutes off the bench on Wednesday and explained that his bout with COVID-19 threw off his rhythm upon his return to the bubble. If Dragic can’t play in Game 2, Nunn said he’s ready to reclaim his spot in the starting lineup.
I don’t think I need a speech or anything like that. I’m ready to play.”
— NBA All-Rookie guard Kendrick Nunn
“I don’t think I need a speech or anything like that,” he said. “I’m ready to play.”
Other little-used Heat players should be, too. Miami utilized the starting lineup of Adebayo, Butler, Nunn, Robinson and Meyers Leonard for 39 of its games during the regular season, but the Heat deployed the lineup it played against the Lakers in Game 1 (Butler, Dragic, Robinson, Crowder and Adebayo) for the majority of the playoffs. That group logged 200 minutes together, generating an offensive rating of 115.6 and a defensive rating of 110.7.
Spoelstra admitted the team’s performance in Game 1 was difficult to evaluate because “that was not our best version” while acknowledging Los Angeles “had something to say about that.”
Having faced plenty of series deficits since becoming Miami’s coach in 2008, Spoelstra grinned as widely as Butler and chuckled when asked whether he’s grown to enjoy the adversity of situations such as the one his team currently faces.
“This is when you feel most alive: when you’re being tested competitively and challenged in new ways, different ways,” Spoelstra said. “This is a quality opponent. This is the way the whole playoff system is supposed to be set up. It’s supposed to get tougher and more challenging every single round, and may the best team win at the end. That’s what we’ll work on today.
“We took it on the chin last night. It counts as one [loss]. But we know we didn’t play well. We didn’t compete at a high enough level. They were the more physical team, and also were just playing their game and imposing their game way more than ours. That’s what makes this matchup interesting. It’s contrasting styles. So, we’ll just work for some better solutions for tomorrow.”
The Lakers are doing the same, which is why LeBron James stayed up until nearly 4:30 a.m. after Game 1 studying the film from that outing.
James won back-to-back championships with Spoelstra in Miami and expects his former coach will bring plenty of adjustments for Game 2, even if the Heat aren’t at full strength.
“There’s going to be five guys in opposing jerseys on the floor, and they’re all dangerous, no matter who’s in the lineup, no matter what the name is,” James said. “You have to approach it like they all can beat you as a unit. And as individuals, they’re all on the floor for a reason.”
As for Butler, who already said he’ll play Friday on the sore ankle, his message to the team was “just to stay calm.” After all, Butler and the majority of the Heat — outside of Spoelstra, Udonis Haslem and Andre Iguodala — experienced jitters as Game 1 marked all their first experiences in the NBA Finals.
“They say when it’s bad – when it rains, it pours,” Butler said. “All in all, we’re still expected to win. We got here for a reason. We realize we belong. But we also realize how well we have to play on both ends of the floor to give ourselves a chance to win. I’ve always said ‘next man up’ when a man goes down, and right now we’re definitely going to have to do that. But I think it’s tough to lose. Your mind is moving at 1,000 miles per hour, obviously you’re not sleeping. But it’s just because we all care. We all want to win. We all want to be champions.”
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