MIAMI — For the most part, the Heat didn’t want to use their myriad injuries as an excuse for why they’ve lost two straight games in the Eastern Finals, including the deciding Game 5, and are now on the brink of elimination.
“We’re not going to make any kind of deviation or any kind of excuse – Boston beat us tonight. And let’s be clear about that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Wednesday after Miami spat in the second half of a 93-80 loss to the Celtics.
Fine. But using the injuries as an excuse for what Spoelstra needs to do for Game 6 would help him go a little easier.
He probably needs to bench Kyle Lowry and Max Strus. It is an indecent thing to say, or even think, of a player with such an excellent pedigree as Lowry, and another who has risen from anonymity to take on every challenge given to him until this one- here, like Strus. But viable alternatives are few, the Celtics’ matchups are complex and the season will end Friday in Boston if the Heat offer nothing.
In the last two games, Lowry and Strus are 1 of 28. One basket. Twenty-eight attempts. Strus is an 0-iron in this stretch, 0-for-16. Lowry, meanwhile, played 25 minutes in Game 5 and registered no assists. He picked up five fouls, committed three turnovers and grabbed a single rebound.
OKAY, now can we talk about injuries?
Lowry, 36, plays with a bad left hamstring. Even casual fans of the Heat or the NBA playoffs are aware of this. Since returning for Game 3 against Boston, his performance has steadily deteriorated. He was OK in that opener (11 points, four assists) against a stoned Marcus Smart, and the Heat won. But he hasn’t been able to make a dent in the last two games, and because of all that’s wrong with Miami, the Heat can ill afford not to get anything out of their starting point guard.
“If I’m out there I have to play and play better, it’s as simple as that,” Lowry said.
If I’m there. Lowry used the phrasing (or something very close to it) three times during his post-game remarks. Maybe it’s guesswork on this writer’s part, but it seemed like Lowry was trying to say something without saying it, like, yes, I have pain and it costs meor, maybe i’m not the best option right now because i can’t move.
Lowry won an NBA title in 2019 with the Raptors. He is a six-time All-Star. He has been hailed for years as an excellent disruptive defender. And more importantly, the Heat signed him to a three-year, $85 million deal last summer for this exact moment, to be Miami’s missing piece next to Jimmy Butler with everything at stake. .
So sitting him in the most important game of the season is not a decision to be taken lightly, and Lowry’s star, the fighter, the champion and the ego that comes with all those things, would object. (vehemently) at the idea.
But playing with a hamstring injury is such an eye-opening and degrading experience. Lowry, like those who have tried before him, moves much slower than he is used to, trying to make cuts, zoom in on screens, push transition and scramble the defense. How does the star, fighter, champion Lowry feel about shooting 1 of 12 in the last two games? It’s a suffocating feeling how he appears on the pitch, and the numbers next to his name on the stat sheet aren’t the real him. It’s the hamstrings talking.
“I have to play better in general no matter what happens,” Lowry said. “It’s a team game, and we’re out there together. For me, it’s just about being in the right places defensively and preparing the guys offensively.
“I played very badly,” he said. “That’s how it is. I’m there, so I have to do a better job.
Lowry’s understudy isn’t quite Isiah Thomas, but Gabe Vincent has acquitted himself pretty well this playoff. With Lowry trailing, Vincent came off the bench for 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting. He missed a bunch of 3s, but Vincent was able to beat Smart and others at the dribble. He competed in defense and for loose balls and moved without the ball in his hands in attack.
Vincent had a poor Game 4 in Boston, where he shot 2 of 10, but otherwise made eight starts, averaged 8.6 points per game and is second in the Heat in assists.
And he is in good health.
There was an argument made earlier in the playoffs, in this space, in fact, that the Heat were better with a healthy Vincent than a Lowry playing much, much less than 100%. Lowry’s return in Game 3 of this series, having missed Miami’s previous four games, made sense at the time, especially if he was in a better position to make an impact than he was when he attempted his first comeback during the Philadelphia Series.
But now that it’s clear Lowry isn’t himself, and there are other injuries to deal with as well, the Heat need maximum production from this spot on the floor.
Strus is actually on the injury report with a hamstring issue, but it’s not something the Heat ever discuss, and no one has even mentioned it when trying to figure out what’s going on with him.
What’s happening with him is a terrible shooting crisis at the worst possible time. Whether or not Strus is injured, the other injuries plaguing the Heat leave them with almost no room for hope that Strus will come out of this slump.
Butler had another stink of a game, and he didn’t look well or produce anywhere near the playoffs Jimmy, we’ve known him since the Heat hinted he had a rash of the right knee. After scoring 70 points in Games 1 and 2 of this series and posting six games of 30 or more points in this postseason, Butler has shot 10 of 35 in the last three games. He is unable to get his own shot. He does not cut to the hoop. Shooting in 3s sounds like serious business.
“If I’m out there, I have to do better,” Butler said. “I have to find a way to help us win, and I didn’t. I’m well. My knee is fine. I just have to do better. That’s not an excuse.
With Butler down, Bam Adebayo, the Heat’s other big name, has led them in two of the last three games. He was terrific in Game 3, scoring 31 points. His 18 on Wednesday was the best a Miami player could do. The Celtics were without Robert Williams III in Game 3 and Adebayo took advantage. With Williams and Al Horford in the lineup together, Adebayo has a lot less room to work with the ball. If his shots are hard to come by and Butler can’t get his own shot and the playmaker’s position is compromised, the next response is to take the roof off Boston’s defense with 3s.
Strus is a playoff starter because Spoelstra traded him for Duncan Robinson — a $90 million man who led the Heat in 3-point shooting for a few years but actually fell completely out of the game. rotation this post-season. Robinson is back, and he’s hit seven 3s and scored 25 points in the past two games.
Again, Strus had his moments. His 3-pointer late in Game 3 avoided a furious Boston comeback. Even with those last two jalopies, he’s still third in the Heat in 3-point percentage in the playoffs (PJ Tucker is No. 1; Robinson No. 2). The Heat think Strus is the better defender between them and Robinson, and it’s arguable that at this point Strus can contribute without scoring, while Lowry has been totally ineffective. But Strus can’t get rid of the Celtics’ staunch defenders and use screens for proper separation. When he does, he misses open shots, allowing the Celtics to assault Butler and hunt Adebayo. It’s unsustainable for Miami.
Another injured Heat star we haven’t talked about yet is Tyler Herro. He’s missed the last two games with a strained left groin, and even if Herro plays Game 6, he won’t be 100 percent. Anything he gives will be greatly appreciated, but the Heat will need the other players used in the rotation operating at the highest capacity.
Spoelstra, a two-time champion who has never lost a conference final in five previous series, wasn’t about to sit on the podium and say he was benching someone. The immediate aftermath of Game 5 was not the time for that. He pleaded for time to watch the film for a better understanding, but said he thought the Heat got some good shots in the first half, competed defensively and were in position to win the game in the third quarter. (that’s right – Miami trailed by five at halftime). He said the increase in missed shots in the third led to defensive lapses.
Journalists tried to ask Spoelstra many times (and in different ways) about Lowry and Strus. He just didn’t want to buy into the narrative.
“I don’t think any of them played outside of themselves,” Spoelstra said. “Even a lot of our actions and the way the offense worked, I thought, was way more in our wheelhouse. We were much more determined and intentional. If you take the emotion out of the failures…”
Then Spoelstra looked at the box score of Game 5. He saw the numbers next to Lowry and Strus. And the team’s overall 3-point shooting percentage (.156). His eyes relayed to his brain the point that the point he was trying to make just didn’t fit.
“OK, yeah, that’s not a good 3-point percentage,” he said, as the room erupted in laughter. “We all felt it. We have all seen it.
We can see the next step too.
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(Photo: Winslow Townson/Getty Images)