LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The NBA Finals just got started, which raises the question: Are the NBA Finals over?
Forget the final Game 1 score of Lakers 116, Heat 98. The Lakers led by 30 halfway through the third quarter. After that, the teams were not playing meaningful basketball. They were providing content.
It is hard to imagine how Wednesday night could have gone worse for Miami’s players unless somebody made them re-watch the presidential debate. Their three stars all got hurt. Goran Dragic injured his foot, Bam Adebayo aggravated a shoulder injury, and Jimmy Butler rolled an ankle. Butler kept playing, but Dragic and Adebayo did not.
Also, it became obvious that nobody on the Heat can guard Anthony Davis, but to be fair to Miami, when Pat Riley built the roster he was limited to a pool of eight billion people. Davis finished with 34 points, nine rebounds, five assists, and three blocks, and if he had decided he wanted to score 50, he probably would have scored 50.
Just three days earlier, Miami had finished off Boston and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra walked into his postgame press conference and asked, “Can we get this over with so I can enjoy a beer?” The Heat were underdogs (even though Butler bristles at that word) but this looked like it would at least be a fun series.
Now? Spoelstra said of Dragic: “I know he is as tough as anybody, and it’s the Finals. But I don’t have an update.” ESPN reported that Dragic tore his plantar fascia. Spoelstra did not have an update for Adebayo, either. Without those two, Miami probably won’t win a game. With them … well …
“We talk about how damn near perfect we have to play,” Butler said. “That was nowhere near it.”
Spoelstra said, “We’re better than we showed tonight.”
They are better. Much better. But they’re not as good as the Lakers, and any hope that Miami might be a tough matchup for the Lakers seemed silly when Davis got going.
Truly great NBA players are one of a kind. Nobody has ever played basketball quite like Kevin Durant, like LeBron James, like Magic Johnson, like Shaquille O’Neal, and there has never been a player quite like Davis. He is 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan. He is comfortable playing under the rim or all the way out to the three-point line on offense and defense. He can block shots, hit three-pointers, guard centers, get switched onto guards, pass out of double-teams, and do it all so fluidly that it’s almost impossible to stop him. Those were Lakers coach Frank Vogel’s exact words last week, in describing Davis and James: “When they're both going at the same time, we're near impossible to stop.”
James didn’t even really have it going for most of Game 1, and the Lakers still crushed Miami. Some of that was that the Lakers shot so well – everybody caught fire at the same time – but even that was partly because of Davis.
As great as James is, the Lakers started their surge when he was on the bench. The beauty of having James and Davis is that they play so well together and one of them is pretty much always on the floor. Davis occupied so much of Miami’s attention that the Lakers’ shooters got clean looks. Spoelstra put Jae Crowder on Davis, and it did not go well. Andre Iguodala guarded Davis in the post, needed help, and Davis passed out to Markieff Morris for three. Iguodala got called for a foul for undercutting Davis on a box-out, and Iguodala was incredulous, as if he wondered how he could box out Anthony Davis without undercutting him.
In the third quarter, during the last minutes when the game was, you know, a game, Davis grabbed an offensive rebound, missed the putback, then grabbed another rebound and scored. If Adebayo is healthy, maybe he can stop Davis from doing that. But Kelly Olynyk will not.
This is a shame. The Lakers have been the best team in the bubble, but the two best stories were Miami and Denver. The Heat is everything we should want to see in the league: a franchise that eschewed tanking and built a tough, unselfish, talented group that moves the ball well on offense and plays both man-to-man and zone defense effectively. We saw that team for half of a quarter in the Finals.
“We have 48 hours to figure out what the next plan of attack will be,” Spoelstra said.
He is such a great coach, and nobody can fault him for believing. But James and Davis are not going to coast – both seemed irked by the poor start in Game 1, and Davis even said he wasn’t happy about how the team played the fourth quarter. And no matter what Spoelstra does, it’s hard to come up with an answer for Davis, because there isn’t one. Maybe Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn can help the Heat overcome the loss of Dragic, and maybe Adebayo will suddenly feel healthy. Or maybe even Spoelstra will want to get this over with so he can enjoy a beer.