The Miami Heat’s run to the NBA Finals, where they ultimately fell to the now-champion Los Angeles Lakers in six games, was fueled by a handful of things. There was, of course, the singular brilliance of Jimmy Butler, who admirably battled every time he was presented with a challenge and put forth two of the best single-game NBA Finals performances we’ve seen before ultimately running out of gas in the team’s deciding defeat. Their role players, like Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, gave invaluable contributions in major moments. When the team needed something from bench players like Andre Iguodala and Kelly Olynyk, more often than not, helped more than they hurt.
In the Finals, however, two of the major players that helped get Miami to the Finals and elevated them from a really good team to a championship-caliber team were not themselves. Throughout the postseason, Goran Dragic looked like the player who made an All-NBA team earlier in his career, while Bam Adebayo made a leap into stardom, looking like a two-way menace and the kind of player who is capable of being an irreplaceable piece of a championship-winning team somewhere down the line.
Due to injuries, neither player was able to reach that level of excellence against the Lakers. In a statement that I hope you do not find controversial, I would like to declare the following about the inarguable last sentence: that stinks.
Adebayo and Dragic are a pair of guys whose impact on the Heat, when they are at their best, cannot be replaced. Adebayo’s ability to impact games on both ends of the floor is marvelous. He is a relentless interior scorer, a tireless rebounder, and someone whose ability to handle the ball and make plays on the offensive end of the floor doesn’t seem like it should be possible for a 23-year-old big man whose ceiling still seems like it could be a ways away. Then, you get to what he does on the other end of the floor, where he is the lynchpin of Miami’s frenetic defense and the rare center who is capable of getting switched onto guards and holding his own just as easily as he’s able to clean up mistakes made by his perimeter players by erasing or at least impacting shot attempts at the rim.
The game I kept coming back to as I thought about Adebayo’s postseason was his Game 6 performance against the Boston Celtics. Despite the fact that he picked up some kind of knock during Game 5, he was easily the best player on the floor in a game that featured multiple All-Stars on both sides of the action. He scored 32 points on 11-for-15 shooting, made 10 of his 11 attempts from the free throw line, hauled in 14 rebounds, and doled out five assists. Defensively, Adebayo was the primary defender for spells against many of Boston’s best players, and no one scored more than four points against him, according to NBA.com.
He is such a smart, instinctive player, but during Game 1 of the Finals, Adebayo suffered what was eventually diagnosed as a neck strain, missed the next two games, and didn’t quite look like himself when he returned to the floor. While Miami did get a good game out of him in Game 6 — 25 points, 10 boards, five assists, two blocks – much of that came in the second half (specifically his 10 points, three rebounds, and two assists in the fourth quarter) when things were done and dusted.
It’s not hard to look back on this series and wonder how different things are if Adebayo plays. The Lakers got a ton of shots from within 10 feet, and when they didn’t go in, their offensive rebounding numbers were breathtaking. While guys like Olynyk and Meyers Leonard battled admirably at the 5, the drop-off from what they can do on both ends of the floor and what Adebayo can do at his best is stark. His ability to navigate the two-man game was taken off the table, too, both during the games he missed and when he returned and didn’t look like himself. He was also the most logical person to defend Anthony Davis, and without him, the team’s defensive versatility suffered — the Davis-LeBron James two-man game becomes a bit tricker to pull off when it’s the best version of Adebayo and one of Butler/Jae Crowder instead of just those two, or one of them and Leonard/Olynyk.
And of course, there is losing the playmaking Adebayo brings at his best, something that was magnified by Miami’s other huge loss. Before even getting to what he brought on the court, Dragic has long been a good player on teams that could never quite make it to the promised land. Prior to this year, he had made the conference finals once as a member of the Phoenix Suns back in 2010. He’d make the playoffs twice in the decade since then before the Heat got in this year, bowing out in the conference semis in 2016 and the first round a year later. As is the case whenever a veteran who has had a long career makes it to the Finals, there’s something really cool about a guy getting over the hump for the first time.
Fifteen minutes into his first Finals game, Dragic suffered a foot injury which later was revealed to be a plantar fasciitis injury. In the time it takes to throw breakfast together, Dragic’s aspirations of contributing in the NBA Finals were taken for him. While he went through warm-ups before Games 2-5, he ultimately just was not able to play. Dragic eventually returned to the series in Game 6, giving Miami 19 minutes off the bench.
Miami’s balance on offense was thrown off without Dragic on the floor. Butler taking over the lion’s share of ball-handling duties isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but taking Dragic off the floor meant more on-ball responsibilities for, say Kendrick Nunn (who had some moments but generally looked like a rookie in the NBA Finals against an elite defense) or Herro, for whom the same sentiment can apply. Herro was especially hurt by Dragic’s absence, as he went from being a really good supporting piece to someone thrust in the spotlight and suddenly garnered the attention of the Lakers top perimeter defenders. He’ll learn and get better from the experience, but through the lens of these Finals, it did not go well. And when the team opted to go to the steady hand of Iguodala, things went poorly — while a good player, he posted, by far, the team’s worst net rating in the Finals. Herro, unsurprisingly, was third-worst, and sandwiched in-between those two was Adebayo.
This is not to say the Heat would’ve won the series with Adebayo and Dragic not suffering their Game 1 injuries, as the Lakers were heavy favorites going into the Finals for a reason, but poorly-timed injuries are one of the worst things about sports. Things may have ended the same way or maybe it would’ve gone very differently, but after a Bubble that featured some of the highest level basketball we’ve seen in an entire postseason, it was a disappointing end to see two of the brightest stars not able to be on the floor and at their best.