Watch any cooking show on TV and you’ll notice that chefs, at least the true professionals, always carry a case of knives. While most of us home cooks (with varying degrees of capability) are content using one kind of knife, probably the biggest one we own, on everything from vegetables to pork loin to Amazon packages, professional chefs have at their disposal a selection of multiple knives of varying lengths, shapes and sharpness, to give them the perfect tool for each specific task.
Coming into the NBA Finals, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had a large case of knives from which to choose, with the ability to pull out the perfect blade depending on exactly what his team needed. Need more athleticism? Here’s three minutes of Derrick Jones Jr. Looking to space the floor? Check in, Kelly Olynyk.
But now, with Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo doubtful for Game 2 after a Game 1 drubbing at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers, Spoelstra may find two of his best and most versatile knives missing from the case. And even if they’re available, they won’t be nearly as sharp.
Beating the Lakers is difficult enough. Beating them without your second-leading postseason scorer and one of your two All-Stars is nearly impossible, even for a team that’s 12-4 in the playoffs. The Heat go from a five-point underdog in Game 2 to a 10.5-point underdog if Dragic and Adebayo don’t play, according to SportsLine data scientist Stephen Oh.
“We know that we can win. We do. But we know that we’ve got to play perfect, man,” said Heat All-Star Jimmy Butler, who is dealing with an ankle injury of his own. “We know we can’t not rebound and not get back. So coming into Game 2, all the adversity, backs against the wall, yadda, yadda, yadda, we got to win.”
Rookie Heat guard Tyler Herro, who’s had a breakout postseason individually but had a rough Game 1 with a team-worst minus-35 in the box score, echoed Butler’s sentiments about having the slimmest margin of error imaginable against the LeBron James-Anthony Davis-led Lakers.
“Every possession matters, especially when you’re playing a team like that that we’re playing,” Herro said on Thursday. “They’re so talented, and you do need to play almost a perfect game, so we need to get the right shots, need to play harder, like I said. And we’ve got to be more physical. We’ve got to be that team that’s the Miami Heat. We need to play like ourselves.”
Nearly every member of the Heat that spoke to the media on the off day between Games 1 and 2 mentioned that they need to play more physical and force the Lakers to play their game rather than the other way around. But it’s hard to play like yourselves when you’re literally not yourselves on the court due to injuries.
So how can Spoelstra and the Heat make up for the potential loss of Dragic, who has a torn plantar fascia in his left foot, and Adebayo, who is dealing with a neck strain? They’ll need to rely on that old cliché of “next man up,” and another overused trope — “Heat culture.”
In theory, Dragic is the easier component to replace — not easy, but easier. The 34-year-old guard is averaging 19.8 points and 4.6 assists and was Kendrick Nunn, who started for the Heat for most of the regular season before Dragic took over for him in the lineup to begin the playoffs. Nunn had played only 29 total playoff minutes prior to Game 1, but looked comfortable offensively during 19 noncompetitive minutes in Game 2, scoring 18 points on 8-for-11 shooting.before his exit in Game 1, but the Heat can conceivably replace his minutes with more for Herro and
Heat forward Jae Crowder said that Nunn, who arrived late to the bubble following a bout with COVID-19, was understandably deflated after realizing he had fallen out of the rotation in the team’s opening-round series against the Indiana Pacers. Like the veteran that he is, Crowder told him to stay ready because his moment would come at some point.
“I’ve been telling him just stay prepared, stay ready. I saw the story a million times where a guy is in the rotation during the season, then he’s out of the rotation, and couple series in he’s back in the rotation,” Crowder said on Thursday. “So, you got to prepare and be a professional, and that’s my message as a leader on this team, especially an older guy he looks up to.”
Spoelstra said that Nunn’s performance on Wednesday didn’t necessarily earn him any playing time, because he’s seen how hard Nunn’s been working in practice over the last few months. He did say, however, that getting significant playing time on Thursday may have helped Nunn get into a rhythm.
“This guy has great competitive character. He’s had to overcome a lot, and he was a big weapon for us during the course of the year. So it’s good to see him get that kind of rhythm,” Spoelstra said of Nunn on Thursday. “[His Game 1 performance] wasn’t anything that notified this head coach, oh, now I can trust him. I’m watching him behind the scenes when nobody else is watching. I love seeing him work at it and just checking all the boxes to make sure he’s ready when the opportunity presented itself.”
Nunn and Dragic are both left-handed, score-first point guards who are nearly the exact same size, but that’s mostly where the similarities stop. Dragic is a better outside shooter, a better ball-handler and a better finisher around the rim. Nunn was in the 47th percentile, averaging 1.18 points per possession in pick-and-roll situations including passes, according to Synergy Sports Technology, while Dragic was in the 79th percentile at 1.3 points per possession. But Nunn can be an adept scorer when he gets rolling, something that the Heat desperately need in this series.
If necessary, replacing Adebayo will be much more difficult — practically impossible. The 23-year-old’s impact on both ends of the court has been essential to Miami’s success with his size, skill, athleticism and versatility.
“I think almost everything changes because of how much Bam does for us offensively and defensively,” Herro said on the prospect of playing without Adebayo. “Whatever happens with Bam, I’m sure Coach has some adjustments that we’re going to make. I couldn’t really tell you what it would look like without Bam. We’ll see what happens.”
The Heat have gone small, with Solomon Hill or Andre Iguodala at center, but that will be difficult to pull off with the Lakers’ size presenting rebounding and rim-protection issues. Instead we’ll likely see Olynyk and possibly Meyers Leonard, who bring at least one aspect that Adebayo doesn’t — 3-point shooting. Offensively, they can pull Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis or JaVale McGee away from the basket, potentially freeing up the lane for more drives and cuts.
Overall, however, if the Heat are without Dragic or Adebayo, or both, no amount of X’s and O’s are going to save them. Winning will depend on playing harder, better and smarter — something that the Heat have done all postseason long.
“The movement, the diversity, the balance that they play with, everybody is a threat on the court at all times with how well they move without the basketball and how good their bigs are at passing the basketball,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said on Thursday. “We feel like this Miami team is as difficult to guard as any team we’ve played in the Playoffs thus far, and there’s a reason they’re 12-3 coming into this series. We can’t let our guard down at all.”