The Lakers could not afford Game 3’s loss to Miami Sunday night. Rumors swirled about Bam Adebayo’s availability prior to tip-off after the neck injury he sustained in Game 1. Even without Adebayo and Goran Dragic, who’s return at any point in the series seems unlikely, the Heat have ways to win. Jimmy Butler made that quite clear.
The Heat’s 115-104 win makes the return of Adebayo much more viable – giving them a massive weapon to truly unveil at some point in these NBA Finals, even if it be in a Game 5 down 3-1 in the series. A re-arrival from the bouncy center in Game 4 should put the Lakers on edge. Not only does Adebayo pack another punch offensively for the Heat (he would have been a major asset in Game 2 offensively, where Miami didn’t have enough to counter onslaughts from Anthony Davis and LeBron James) – he offers the best defense Miami has against Davis.
That isn’t saying too much though. Davis was still a problem in Game 1 when matched up with Adebayo. He couldn’t replicate the incredible stronghold he put on Giannis Antentokounmpo in the second round. Davis pulled up for jump-shots instead and drained them. The wingspan advantage of five inches made up well.
Almost subconsciously, the absence of Adebayo was there in Game 2. Davis missed five shots, putting up 32 points and 14 boards. It felt like 50 points and 20 rebounds instead. The Lakers maintained a double digit lead while Butler willed himself to 25 points, eight rebounds and 13 assists.
Davis cost himself and his team in Game 3. The Heat really did nothing different from a defensive standpoint with Adebayo out. In fact, they got lucky Davis didn’t have another Game 2 performance. Two early fouls saw his minutes decreased. He had four by the halfway mark of the third quarter. The Lakers shifted their offense away from him late, likely scared of having him foul out after going on a run and leaving the offense in shambles. James was good again, but there was a strange passiveness from him on both ends of the court late in the game. While Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma chipped in off the bench, James can’t be feeding those guys when down just a few possessions late, even if they’re cooking. Miami’s had just as little of an answer for James as they have Davis this series. He should have taken advantage.
Now, the Lakers go into Game 4 holding just a one game advantage in the series with Adebayo possibly back in the mix. Every game Adebayo didn’t play had to be a win for the Lakers. The matchup advantage was too good for Davis, and Sunday night he squandered it. Game 1 proved that Adebayo might not be as impactful on Davis as we thought coming into the series, but he likely won’t be allowing a Game 2 type performance. That’s all the Heat need.
Adebayo’s biggest impact in a potential return is on the offensive side of the ball. Game 2 was a poor man’s Game 3 from Butler. He just wasn’t special enough, and didn’t get any sliver of help. Adebayo can be a major contributor there.
There seems to be pessimism about Dragic’s potential return in this series. He and Adebayo’s pick-and-roll destroyed the Lakers before their injuries occurred in Game 1. Dragic was unstoppable getting to the basket, and Adebayo’s athleticism on lobs resulted in tip-in and after tip-in.
If Adebayo is back in Game 4, a good way to get Butler some help would be to swap Butler in for Dragic in the PNR. Los Angeles will have nightmares about the mid-rangers Butler consistently sank on them in Game 3, and Adebayo will get one of LA’s bigs moving their feet rolling. That play will force help from Lakers defenders inside, and Adebayo’s a savvy enough passer to make kick-outs to Jae Crowder and Tyler Herro, among others.
Sunday night’s loss was a scary one for the Lakers. It shouldn’t be surprising if Miami can tie it in Game 4. They’ve got confidence now, no matter who is on the court for them. Butler’s on a roll, and he’s too competitive to die out fast. Those parameters are present whether Adebayo is in the lineup or not. If he’s playing, a 2-2 series tie almost feels inevitable. That provides even more time for a potential Dragic return. If Butler’s play sticks through all of that, Miami quickly evolves into a team that now just needs two wins, not four, and suddenly, them raising the trophy feels a lot more feasible.