It was one of the biggest tactical questions heading into Game 1 of the 2020 NBA Finals: How would the Miami Heat defend Anthony Davis? Would Erik Spoelstra deploy Bam Adebayo, a smaller but similarly strong and athletic All-Star and All-Defensive Teamer, to go one-on-one with the Lakers’ leading scorer? Would he keep Bam off the ball as a help defender, give the assignment to swingman Jae Crowder, and plan to double-team AD as soon as he dribbled the ball in the post or facing up? Or maybe he’d veer away from Miami’s preferred small-ball style, reinserting a big man like Meyers Leonard or Kelly Olynyk back into the starting lineup? Perhaps look to keep AD out of the paint with heaping helpings of zone defense?
And then the ball went up, and the answer rang out, clear as a bell: The Heat wouldn’t defend Anthony Davis, because the Heat—for all their depth and tenacity and culture—couldn’t really defend Anthony Davis. Nobody can, and it’s as big a reason as any besides LeBron James—and frankly, maybe including the King—that the Lakers sit three wins away from a championship.
Davis decimated Miami on Wednesday, pouring in a game-high 34 points on 11-for-21 shooting to go with 9 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocks in 38 minutes of work as the Lakers steamrolled the Heat, 116-98, to take a 1-0 lead. The former no. 1 overall pick’s first career Finals game looked an awful lot like his first 15 postseason contests in a Lakers uniform, with the 27-year-old answering everything the Heat tried to throw at him as he earned a spot in Laker lore, tying for the third-highest-scoring Finals debut in franchise history, behind only Shaquille O’Neal and George Mikan and even with Elgin Baylor. Decent company.
He splashed catch-and-shoot jumpers and dusted Heat defenders off the bounce to get to the rim. He ran the floor in transition, sealed Miami’s smaller players deep in the paint, and orchestrated from the block, drawing doubles before kicking out to open shooters. He worked Crowder (who was, indeed, Spoelstra’s first option), Adebayo, and anyone else unlucky enough to get in his path, mauling Miami on the offensive glass and bulldozing his way to 10 free throws, draining them all. He overwhelmed the Heat, establishing himself as the best player on the floor and looking for all the world like a Finals MVP in the waiting.
It’s hard to remember now, after a full-fledged stomp-out that turned the entire fourth quarter of a Finals game into extended garbage time, but Miami got out to a scorching start in Game 1. The small-ball Heat leveraged their combination of ball and player movement to attack the titanic Lakers, repeatedly going after starting center Dwight Howard in the pick-and-roll and compromising the L.A. defense; they made nine of their first 12 shots, forced four Lakers turnovers in the first six and a half minutes, and sprinted out to a 23-10 lead just as LeBron headed to the bench for his first rest of the game.
During the regular season, those sorts of lineups—LeBron on the bench, AD on the floor as the no. 1 option—tended to struggle, posting a negative net rating, while units in which James ran the show while Davis sat blitzed opponents by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions. The AD-no-LeBron lineups have fared a lot better in the playoffs, though, which might have emboldened Frank Vogel to flip the same switch he did in Round 2 against Houston, sending Howard to the bench, bumping Davis up to the center spot, and entrusting AD to both shut down Miami’s pick-and-roll game on one end and commandeer the offense on the other. It worked like gangbusters again: The Lakers ground Miami’s free-flowing offense into the dirt, cut nine points off the deficit before James checked back in, and set the stage for the utter two-way dominance that would follow in the second and third quarters, in which L.A. outscored Miami 62-39 to turn what briefly looked like a competitive start to the series into a decidedly one-sided affair.
Davis’s brilliance wasn’t the only factor that contributed to the blowout. James picked the Heat apart, chipping in 25 points with 13 rebounds and nine assists against just two turnovers as he paced a Lakers offense that sure doesn’t seem to be struggling much in the half court anymore. The Lakers’ complementary pieces shined in Game 1, with Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Markieff Morris, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, and Rajon Rondo combining to make 9 of 22 3-point attempts through the first three quarters, providing the floor spacing to support L.A.’s signature superstars, and keeping the Lakers undefeated in the postseason when they shoot better than 30 percent from long distance. Perhaps most importantly: The Heat, already struggling to generate good looks and get stops, saw vital starters Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, and Goran Dragic all suffer injuries that effectively ended the game long before Miami’s reserve corps authored a fourth-quarter run to make the final score respectable.
Butler suffered a nasty ankle turn late in the second quarter, but returned to play; he appeared hobbled for much of the second half, but soldiered on, and insisted he’d be fine for Game 2. Adebayo appeared to re-aggravate the left shoulder injury he sustained in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston; he left the game midway through the third quarter and didn’t return, though X-rays were negative. Dragic, however, exited at halftime after suffering what was later revealed to be a torn plantar fascia in his left foot late in the second quarter, casting his availability for the remainder of the series into doubt.
If Butler, Adebayo, and Dragic are limited or unavailable, the Heat are truly screwed in this series; they simply don’t have enough shot creation, dribble penetration, or defensive depth to overcome those losses. (Though, in fairness, how many teams can withstand the absence of literally their three most important players in the Finals?) But even if Miami’s top guns are able to come back at something resembling full form, and L.A.’s supporting cast regresses to the mean from the perimeter, Spoelstra still has to find an answer for Davis. After watching him annihilate the likes of suddenly-backup-centers Andre Iguodala and Solomon Hill in Game 1, it seems unlikely that a different variation on small ball will do the trick; Kelly Olynyk (four points, five boards, and four assists in mop-up duty) might get the call, and perhaps the long-mothballed Meyers Leonard will make a comeback to try to match muscle with Davis and Howard up front.
But Spoelstra went small for a reason; he believed moving Adebayo to the 5 and packing his rotation with versatile wings would allow Miami to become its best self in the bubble, and to this point, it has. On Wednesday, though, he and his Heat came face-to-face with a stark realization: Miami’s best self might have been good enough to tear through the East, but it also might be too small, too weak, and just flat-out not good enough to stand up to Davis, a superstar in full bloom whose time in the sun appears to have come.