“They didn’t win. You’ve got to deal with it. You’ve got to come back.”
That is, admittedly, only a very small snippet of a speech Pat Riley gave in June 2014, not long after the Heat were dealt a humbling 4–1 defeat in the Finals by the Spurs. In a now-infamous monologue (that may or may not have contributed to LeBron James leaving Miami that summer), Riley memorably challenged his organization to bounce back from the decisive loss.
Since then having “the guts,” as Riley eloquently put it that day, has become a common refrain around the Heat whenever the team is heading into a high-pressure situation. That’s where Miami finds itself now, trailing 1–0 in the Finals after a resounding loss to the Lakers in Game 1. The Heat aren’t quite at the crossroads they were the day Riley inadvertently created a rallying cry. What’s certain, however, is Miami’s feel-good run to the championship round is over. This is the first time the Heat have trailed in a series this postseason. How will they respond to this new level of stress?
As many coaches have noted before, this level of competition is not supposed to be easy. Miami’s miracle run to the Finals was an anomaly. Going up 3–0 on the overall No. 1 seed doesn’t happen. A third-year big like Bam Adebayo dominating a conference finals on both ends of the floor doesn’t happen. A team without traditional superstars making the Finals—with rare exceptions—doesn’t happen. The Heat faced very little resistance in their journey to the Finals, and now the magic carpet they rode in on has been pulled out from under them.
The reality of the current situation is stark. The Lakers were the best team in the West during the regular season, they employ two of the best players in the game (one of whom is maybe the greatest ever), and they’ve breezed through the playoffs. Meanwhile for Miami, Goran Dragic is hurt and likely to miss time if not the rest of the series. Bam Adebayo is hurt. Jimmy Butler rolled his ankle. And Erik Spoelstra is now 1–5 in his last six Finals games, with an average margin of defeat of 18 points. The Heat’s vulnerabilities—their lack of size, their lack of secondary ball-handling, their streakiness from three—were much easier to overlook when it felt as if they were in control of every round. Now, Miami is facing a gut check for the first time since the restart, uh, started over 80 days ago. Is there enough left for a comeback?
The injuries will certainly play a factor, but the Heat also have to execute better in Game 2. On the defensive side of the ball, Miami will live with some of the threes Los Angeles hit on Wednesday night. But the Heat can’t give up open looks in the corner to guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The zone that was so effective against Boston was sparsely used in Game 1. That’s one route Spoelstra can go down to try to inject some life back into his team. The Lakers’ size is an issue. But they weren’t an offensive juggernaut during the regular season. Bringing more size off the bench—say, Kelly Olynyk—isn’t going to shut down someone like Anthony Davis, but it could make him try a little harder than he had to in Game 1.
Offensively, Miami is going to have its hands full with one of the best defenses in the NBA. The Heat need to stay committed to their off-ball movement and force the Lakers to pay attention for every second of the shot clock. Duncan Robinson shot only three threes, or one less than Jimmy Butler, and he missed all of them. That’s not a formula for success. As great as James and Davis were in Game 1, and they were spectacular, Miami’s advantage in this series is theoretically its depth. Robinson, Herro, and Iguodala all struggled on Wednesday night. If the Heat have any chance of making this a fight, those guys have to flip the script on their counterparts.
Realistically, if Dragic, Butler, and Adebayo are all limited moving forward, then yes, this series is over. (Considering the final margin, that trio was a shocking +17 in the eight minutes they shared the court in Game 1.) But the Heat are too experienced as an organization from the top down to have been foolish enough to think winning a Finals wouldn’t have come with a healthy dose of adversity. The pushback has finally arrived, in the form of a Hall-of-Fame duo hellbent on winning legacy-defining rings.
Does this Miami team have the guts? The Lakers shoved them into a locker in Game 1. People are already debating whether or not James or Davis will be the Finals MVP. That’s what happens when you’re running your opponents off the floor in such a humiliating manner.
The Heat’s comfortable run is now officially finished. They’ve got to deal with it. They’ve got to come back.