Miami Heat Lose More Than a Game in 2020 NBA Finals Opener vs. Lakers

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 1, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James, right, looks to pass while covered by Miami Heat's Duncan Robinson, left, and Goran Dragic (7) during the first half of Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Feel-good stories have a shelf life. For some, the end includes triumph, an outcome befitting the against-all-odds mantra. For others, the conclusion is more of a cold truth, a free-fall back toward reality after hovering, improbably, dimensions above it.

Right now, a mere one game into the 2020 NBA Finals, the Miami Heat's Cinderella push appears fast-tracked for the less elegant wrap-up.

Goran Dragic's injury is part of this seemingly abrupt end. He suffered a plantar tear in his left foot during the Los Angeles Lakers' 116-98 victory over Miami on Monday night, leaving his status for the rest of the series in obvious doubt at best, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

Overcoming his absence, however long it lasts, feels like a non-starter. He was the Heat's leading postseason scorer entering Monday's loss, and they don't have the secondary shot creation behind Jimmy Butler to guarantee offensive solvency without the 34-year-old point guard. 

Miami's half-court efficiency has cratered when Dragic sits. That prognosis only gets worse if he cannot play at all. The most-used lineup without him—Butler, Bam Adebayo, Jae Crowder, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson—is a demonstrative negative. No other five-man combination topped 50 playoff possessions minus Dragic prior to Monday night.

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As deep as the Heat are, Dragic has always represented their best crack at consistently hacking it against rival starting units. Going from him to Herro, a 20-year-old rookie, or Kendrick Nunn, another rookie, is a huge drop-off.

Phrased more bluntly: Miami is at risk of losing 20-plus points, four-plus assists and its second-best on-the-move finisher every game. Weathering that deficit, for any length of time, is an untenably gargantuan ask.

"Be ready to go with or without Goran," Butler said, per ESPN's Malika Andrews. "... We are capable of it. We have to be capable of it."

Even if the Heat's depth beyond Dragic is enough to withstand such a massive blow, it might not matter.

Bam Adebayo left Game 1 and didn't return with a left shoulder strain. X-rays were negative, and he plans to play in Friday's Game 2. But the notion of a banged-up Adebayo is also concerning. He's critical to how the Heat guard Anthony Davis and LeBron James, even if he's not the primary defender on either.

And yet, herein lies the larger issue(s) for the Heat, bigger than Dragic's possible (probable?) absence, bigger than how they fill his shoes, bigger than a potentially reduced version of Adebayo: The Lakers have LeBron. They have Davis. They're better suited for this stage, for these stakes—and always were.

This is not meant to be a denigration—or even a relitigation—of all the Heat have done. They beat real teams to get here. The Milwaukee Bucks weren't without Giannis Antetokounmpo for three-plus games of the second round. The Boston Celtics only inched closer to whole following the return of Gordon Hayward during the Eastern Conference Finals.

Bad luck plus a superior opponent equals not-so-great news for the Heat.
Bad luck plus a superior opponent equals not-so-great news for the Heat.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Miami belongs here, in the championship round, with the chance to nab one of the most unexpected titles ever. Actually belonging in the winner's circle is an entirely different matter. The Heat have made it this far for so many reasons, chief among them their obsessive intensity, focus and execution. But top-end talent can turn back underdogs, which is what the Heat were even before now.

The Lakers have the top-end-talent advantage. Davis and LeBron are the two best players in this series, period. Butler might have nights during which he scoots past one of them, but he won't do so in the aggregate.

Los Angeles' stars proved as much in Game 1. Davis went on an offensive binge in the first quarter to help erase a 13-point deficit and finished the night with 34 points, nine rebounds and five assists on 11-of-21 shooting. LeBron cruised to 25 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists.

Davis is making shots from everywhere in the playoffs, including from 3. He's equally ubiquitous on defense. LeBron can forever nonchalant his way to triple-doubles. He will feast if the Heat are going to let Herro switch onto him. Even Adebayo looked overmatched in space.

Rest assured, Miami can get more aggressive in how it covers both stars. Maybe Adebayo sees more time as the primary stopper on Davis. Maybe LeBron is trapped six ways until next Sunday. 

To what end, though?

Alex Caruso's minutes aren't a fluke. Danny Green is a seesaw, but he will have games, plural, in which he drains his threes (3-of-8 in Game 1) while, as ever, defending his butt off. Dwight Howard doesn't need to score for his presence to be felt—in a good way. Kyle Kuzma's defensive effort allows head coach Frank Vogel to use him for 20-plus minutes even when his shots aren't falling, and they have not been falling.

Rajon Rondo is helping this team, even on nights when he's 2-of-7 from the floor. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will have better games than his 3-of-10 footnote Monday night; his shooting has been a revelation.

Sure, the Heat can look at plenty of controllable factors and envision a turnaround that makes this reaction to a 48-minute sample seem silly—even sinister. They are third in free-throw-attempt rate for the postseason but attempted just 14 in Game 1. They will not often lose the three-point battle to L.A. by 12 points, with or without Dragic.

Overall Game 1 doesn't feel like a case of missed opportunity or a loss by misfortune. The Lakers had overturned the Heat's early lead before Miami's onslaught of bad luck hit. That hardship merely exacerbates the feeling of inevitability facing the Lakers, whether it takes five, six or seven games.

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass.