Regardless of whether or not Goran Dragic can return from a plantar fascia injury at some point in these NBA Finals, the Miami Heat likely won’t be getting back the rejuvenated player who boosted their offense to unexpected heights in the Bubble. The Heat will have to adjust, and while they have a deep squadron of talented perimeter players, there is no one who can precisely replicate the downhill play-making prowess Dragic brought them this summer. What is more likely is that Jimmy Butler will take on even more for Miami if they want to make this series competitive following an 18-point loss in Game 1.
It’s obvious how Butler could impact the series offensively, because we saw it during last year’s playoffs when he was in Philadelphia. Maybe it’s not his preference or it wears him out because of how hard he also plays on defense, but Butler is capable of running an elite playoff offense. And this year’s Miami roster caters to his strengths even better, with a spread pick-and-roll game that allows Butler to simply take what the defense offers rather than forcing shots with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid cramping the floor.
While it’s hard to take much from Game 1 that Miami will want to replicate moving forward, the Heat would do well to also double down on what got them here rather than over-reacting — and based on what we know about Erik Spoelstra as a coach, it’s far more likely that he does the former than the latter. Losing Dragic means a lot of the quick-hitting pick-and-roll action that can generate easy offense for Miami will be harder to come by, as Dragic scored 0.94 points per pick-and-roll possession this season, better by far than Butler, Tyler Herro, or Kendrick Nunn. With all the spacing and play-making Miami can put on the floor, Dragic’s quickness and craft are the perfect finishing touch. Nobody can replicate that.
The offense will, by nature, look different. Pick-and-roll is the simplest way to generate efficient offense, but the Heat are special because they have other looks, too. The efficient orchestra of the Duncan Robinson-Bam Adebayo screen game was nowhere to be seen in Game 1, in part because of the Lakers’ near-perfect switching defense. But forcing Los Angeles to sell out even more on Robinson outside the arc could free up more space in the halfcourt to let Butler, Nunn, or Herro cook in Dragic’s place.
Late in the game, Nunn actually scored the ball decently well, and finished with 18 points on 11 field goal attempts. If he can find a rhythm, Nunn’s quickness is the closest replacement for Dragic’s stylings as the Heat have. Nunn is fast enough to beat switches and has the shot-making ability to attack the in-between space where Dragic is so good. Maybe he even returns to the starting lineup if Dragic is out or comes off the bench in Game 2.
Digging this far into the depth chart is not only necessary because of Dragic’s injury, but also because Herro proved nearly unplayable in Game 1. Of all the stars in the NBA, LeBron James has long been the ultimate decider of who can and can’t cut it in the postseason. If a player is too small or too slow or unable to read the floor, James will hunt them down repeatedly and make them make a defensive play. At age 20, Herro was not up to the task in Game 1, and while his shooting could come around (he went 6-for-18 from the field and 2-for-8 from three), his defense will almost certainly remain a concern. Are the potential for better offensive days worth it for Miami when putting the ball in Butler’s hands is a more proven upgrade?
Of course, injuries also forced Adebayo and Butler out of Game 1 at different times. They may be hampered, too. And even if Adebayo plays — he is officially listed as doubtful — one major indicator from Game 1 is that Miami has to play bigger to match the Lakers. The good thing is they have the personnel to do it, and it could help them overcome Dragic’s absence as well.
Looking above, Nunn and the whole Heat offense excelled late (when the Lakers likely were not defending at full strength) playing in a two-man game with either Andre Iguodala or Kelly Olynyk. Those two are interesting substitutes for Adebayo as screeners in Miami’s offense because they can attack mismatches, especially when the Lakers are switching so aggressively. Iguodala can sometimes create a shot for himself, but he’s a great passer. Olynyk can score in the post or launch deep threes. It would make sense if Olynyk plays more with Adebayo in Game 2, and Iguodala could be a surprise candidate to replace Dragic in the starting lineup if the Heat really do lean into Butler as a ball-handler.
The Heat have answers on offense, but far fewer on defense. If they aren’t controlling the pace of games and size of lineups, they lose much of what propelled them through the East side of the bracket. Dragic’s absence won’t be the only issue, but even if Butler steps up, it exacerbates their proven formula and forces them to rely on less proven players and less balanced lineups.