QSAO’s NBA Finals Breakdown: Looking Ahead for the Heat After A Disastrous Game One

By Jared Goodman

The NBA’s shutdown on March 12th led to months of uncertainty and questions about the future of the 2019-20 season. Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID test spun not only basketball but the entire world of sports into a frenzy. The league endured a wild period of player movement in 2019, and it was almost criminal to think that this new-look NBA may not crown a champion this season.

Nevertheless, the NBA found a way, and, more incredibly, all of us at QSAO managed a few months with no sports. On Wednesday, September 30, nearly seven months after the shutdown, the NBA’s restart began its epic conclusion in Game One of the Finals between the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers. While fans never got their long-awaited Clippers-Lakers matchup, the purple and gold more than earned their spot, winning their preceding three series by a score of 4-1. The Heat, on the other hand, served as a March Madness-esque Cinderella story, becoming the first fifth seed in NBA history to make the Finals.

Game One was all Los Angeles, who won by a score of 116-98 while leading by as much as 32 in the 3rd quarter. As usual, LeBron James and Anthony Davis led the way with 25-13-9 and 34-9-5 lines, respectively. The Heat struggled to contain the star duo and did not shoot particularly well on the other side of the ball. Worst of all, they suffered two critical injuries. Heat center Bam Adebayo left Game One in the third quarter with a shoulder strain and is doubtful to play in Game Two. Even worse, Goran Dragic suffered a torn left foot in the 2nd quarter, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. 

Although Game One isn’t do-or-die after all, LeBron was only 1-7 in opening Finals games going into this series; it was a nightmare scenario for the Heat. We take a look at the impact of these injuries and other key storylines going forward in the series.

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Photo credited to Getty Images

Stepping Up — Managing Miami’s Injury Concerns

While Dragic had been the Heat’s leading scorer in the bubble, it was rookie Kendrick Nunn who started 68 of 73 games for the Heat at point guard this season before, remarkably, getting thrown out of the rotation these playoffs. Dragic’s injury likely means a pivot back to Nunn at point guard, just like in the regular season. 

Nunn was the sole bright spot for the Heat in Game One, totalling 18 points off the bench, shooting 8-11 in his first appearance since Game Three against Boston. Still, Nunn is a major downgrade from Dragic’s All-Star level talent. Eric Spoelstra has always been one to make big moves and will have to hope that Nunn’s confidence has not been lost from a shaky time so far in the bubble that led to his benching.

Though his injury looks to be less severe, Bam Adebayo’s absence in Game Two is equally disastrous for the Heat. Adebayo is the Heat’s most important player, with a 63.8% true-shooting percentage these playoffs and the highest player-impact plus-minus on the team.

Before the Lakers matched up against the Rockets in the second round of the playoffs, much was made about Anthony Davis’ prowess against an incredibly small Houston lineup, matching up with PJ Tucker at center. With no Adebayo, the Heat will face practically the same issue. A potential crunchtime lineup of Nunn, Jimmy ButlerTyler Herro, Jae Crowder and a fifth member of choice in either Duncan Robinson, Solomon Hill, Kelly Olynyk or Andre Iguodala leaves almost no answer for Anthony Davis. 

The Heat may have to look to the end of the bench to get more size on the floor. Of course, benching Nunn wasn’t the only major pivot made by the Heat in these playoffs. After starting 51 games at center this season, center Meyers Leonard was removed from the rotation as well despite his hefty $11.28M salary. The Heat may have to go back to Leonard, simply for lack of a better option.

If Adebayo is able to return for Game Three, the likely new starting lineup for the Heat will have hardly played together all year. Nunn, Butler, Robinson, Crowder and Adebayo totaled just 48 minutes together with an offensive rating of 102.8 and a defensive rating of 103.9. Notably, Nunn’s lack of playmaking would shift ball-handling duties to Butler in this unit. Between a minor injury in Game 1 and spending a lot of time guarding LeBron James, the Heat’s injuries only put more responsibility on Butler.

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Photo credited to Nathaniel S. Butler

Keeping Up With The Stars — Scoring From The Halfcourt

Miami knows that slowing the game down works to their benefit, as the only real weakness the Lakers have had all year is running offense in the halfcourt. Per Cleaning The Glass, the Lakers finished with the 19th best halfcourt offense during the regular season. It\’s the halfcourt where struggles from Danny GreenKyle Kuzma and other members of the supporting cast are put on display, with far less space to work with. Avery Bradley’s absence only magnifies this issue, as Bradley, James and Davis had an 11.5 net rating on the floor together compared to a 5.64 rating for the Lakers overall. 

Additionally, despite their success during the playoffs, the Lakers have an 89.5 offensive rating with under five minutes left, where games generally slow down. It’s these clutch-time possessions where the Heat have been excellent these playoffs, totaling a rating of 135.2, tops in the playoffs by far. More halfcourt sets instead of fastbreak attempts work to Miami’s advantage.

At 97.36 possessions per game, the Heat were the fifth-slowest team in the postseason but still averaged more points than every single team in the East at 112.2 PPG. A large contribution to this was three-point prowess from Miami. Of the four Conference Finals teams, Miami had the highest three-point frequency, shooting from deep at 44.3% of their possessions.

While Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro led the charge from deep all year, the two combined for just 2-11 on threes in Game One. The Lakers forced Miami out of their comfort zone, with the Heat taking far more mid-range shots than usual at a clip of 6 for 20 after averaging under 13 attempts per game this season. The Heat will need to continue to slow down the game and have their two sharpshooters to get hot if they stand a chance in these series.

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Photo credited to Getty Images

Nothing Easy — The Discipline of the Laker’s Defense

Another part of the explanation for Miami’s high point totals is one major point of advantage: the free-throw line. The Heat jumped from 19.7 made free throws per game during the regular season to 22.7 these playoffs, an incredible bonus given that the postseason historically means a tighter whistle.

Against the Bucks, Miami saw either Khris Middleton or Giannis Antetokoumnpo foul-out in three of their wins. Additionally, in the Conference Finals that saw the Celtics give bigger, slower defenders like Daniel Theis and Grant Williams heavy minutes, Miami spent a lot of time in the bonus. 

It’s a trend that has given the Heat an extra boost in incredibly close games. Unfortunately for Spoelstra and company, the only big that the Lakers played in Game One was Dwight Howard, who totaled just 15 minutes. With little minute totals from Howard and his counterpart Javale McGee, the Lakers simply do not have many players susceptible to fouling. There is no Grant Williams or Daniel Theis to attack at the hoop.

The Lakers\’ bigs for the majority of the game are, well, their two superstars. LeBron James, who roams the paint, has committed just 1.8 fouls per game in 35 minutes per game this postseason. Anthony Davis, who works as the de-facto center in minutes without Howard or McGee, has yet to commit more than four fouls in a postseason game.

With a far shorter rotation that sees centers effectively obsolete outside of stints from Dwight Howard, the Lakers play a disciplined defense that does not give up easy trips to the free-throw line. This time around, Miami will not be able to cash in on foul-prone opponents as they did previously.

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Photo credited to Getty Images

However, This series is not over.

Miami smartly doubled James and Davis and forced role players from the Lakers to make shots, which they did, shooting 11-for-19 from deep in the first half. Though, it is unlikely they repeat those numbers. Though narratives may be shifting one way, let’s not kid ourselves, the Lakers are no Golden State, and are certainly susceptible to off-nights.

If Dragic is unable to return and Adebayo remains limited, a gentleman’s sweep is still a likely outcome. But if there is one thing that\’s clear in this bizarre 2019-20 season, it’s that LeBron has been vindicated in his move to Los Angeles and year-long courtship of Anthony Davis.

Prediction: Lakers in Five. 

Statistics retrieved from Cleaning The Glass, NBA.com, StatMuse, NBAStuffer

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