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The Heat’s Underlying Problem Leaves Them Zero Margin for Error

Well, at least Miami now knows what it shouldn’t do in Game 2. To square the Finals, Erik Spoelstra needs to find a creative way to slow down Anthony Davis.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Heat were drawing dead from the jump in their blowout loss to the Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Their biggest problem was starting the undersized Jae Crowder on Anthony Davis. It made sense from a matchup perspective: Miami wanted Bam Adebayo to stay closer to the rim instead of chasing Davis around the perimeter, while also keeping him out of early foul trouble. But it’s a pretty troubling sign when putting Crowder on Davis is your best option. That’s not a plan. That’s an invitation to get embarrassed.

Davis finished Wednesday with 34 points on 11-of-21 shooting, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocks. It was right in line with his eye-popping playoff averages: 29.1 points on 56.7 percent shooting, 9.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game. No one has reached those marks in the postseason since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s just not fair to ask Crowder, a scrappy 6-foot-6 combo forward on his sixth team in six seasons, to guard the 6-foot-10 All-Star.

Miami altered its identity in the bubble, benching Meyers Leonard in favor of Crowder and putting four perimeter players around Bam. Boston, which didn’t start anyone taller than 6-foot-8 in the East finals, couldn’t punish its lack of size. Los Angeles, on the other hand, starts three players taller than 6-foot-9 in Davis, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard. If the Heat want to keep their smaller starting lineup, they need to put Crowder on Howard, not Davis.

It would be a tough assignment. Crowder is giving up half a foot and 30 pounds to Howard. But the Lakers don’t want to post up Howard (who had just two points in Game 1) regardless of who is on him. The bigger issue would be keeping him off the offensive glass, but that’s still preferable to letting Davis get into a rhythm.

The Heat want Howard on the floor as much as possible, anyway. He was one of only two players in the Lakers’ rotation with a negative plus-minus (minus-2 in 15 minutes) on Wednesday. Miami used his man as a screener both on and off the ball in order to attack him in space and create open shots. There’s a reason JaVale McGee didn’t play at all. Los Angeles is better off defensively in this series if it plays more mobile defenders at center.

The underlying problem for Miami is that while Bam had a matchup advantage at the 5 when the team went small in the first three rounds, he suddenly becomes the underdog against AD. He’s smaller than him and isn’t nearly as good an outside shooter or shot creator. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t win the matchup. It just means that he has zero margin for error.

Adebayo struggled before hurting his shoulder midway through Game 1, with eight points on 2-of-8 shooting, four rebounds, and no assists in 21 minutes. ESPN’s Rachel Nichols reported that the X-rays on his shoulder were negative, so he should hopefully be able to play in Game 2. His rise to stardom has been one of the best stories in the playoffs, but the expectations only grow the deeper you advance.

The Heat just don’t have a lot of players with Bam’s size or athleticism on their roster. He was the only big man in their rotation by the end of the Celtics series. Andre Iguodala became the backup center. Either the Heat will have to play Kelly Olynyk in spot minutes, or go back to their zone and hope the Lakers miss 3s in Game 2. Los Angeles shot 15-for-38 from 3 (39.5 percent) in Game 1. The Lakers are undefeated in the playoffs when they shoot higher than 30 percent from deep. It’s hard to beat a team with Davis and LeBron scoring at the rim when they can also beat you on the perimeter.

The good news for the Heat is that it can’t get any worse Friday. The 116-98 final score from Game 1 doesn’t quite reflect just how bad the beatdown was. The bar for Spoelstra to make an effective adjustment is low. Just about anything would be better than sticking Crowder on Davis again.