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 in the Eastern finals, including pivotal Game 5, and are now on the brink of elimination.
“We are not going to make any kind of deflection or any kind of excuse — Boston beat us tonight. And let’s be clear about that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra interjected Wednesday after Miami sputtered badly in the second half of a 93-80 loss to the Celtics.
Fine. But using injuries as an excuse for what Spoelstra must do for Game 6 would help it go down a little smoother.
He probably has to bench Kyle Lowry and Max Strus. It’s an unseemly thing to say, or even think, about one player with as excellent a pedigree as Lowry, and about another who rose from anonymity to meet each challenge he’s been given until this one, like Strus. But the viable alternatives are few, the Celtics matchups are complex, and the season will end Friday in Boston if the Heat don’t come up with something.
In the last two games, Lowry and Strus are 1-of-28. One basket. Twenty-eight attempts. Strus is an 0-fer in that stretch, 0-for-16. Lowry, meanwhile, played 25 minutes in Game 5 and didn’t record an assist. He picked up five fouls, committed three turnovers and picked up a single rebound.
OKAY, now can we talk about injuries?
Lowry, 36, is playing with a bad left hamstring. Even casual followers of the Heat or the NBA playoffs are aware of this. Since he returned for Game 3 against Boston, his performances have gotten progressively worse. He was OK in that first game back (11 points, four assists) playing against a banged-up Marcus Smart, and the Heat won. But he has not been able to make a dent in the last two games, and because of everything else going wrong with Miami, the Heat can ill afford to literally get nothing out of their starting point guard.
“If I’m out there, I’ve got to play and play better, it’s as simple as that,” Lowry said.
If I’m out there. Lowry used the phrasing (or something very close to it) three different times during his postgame remarks. It may be conjecture on this writer’s part, but, it sounded as though Lowry was trying to say something without saying it, such as, yes, I am hurting and it’s costing 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’s a six-time All-Star. He’s been hailed for years as an excellent, disruptive defender. And most importantly, the Heat signed him to a three-year, $85 million contract last summer for this precise moment, to be Miami’s missing piece next to Jimmy Butler with everything on the line.
So sitting him in the most important game of the season is not a decision to be made lightly, and the star in Lowry, the fighter, the champion and the ego that comes along with all of those things, would object (vehemently) to the idea.
But playing with a hamstring injury is such an exposing, degrading experience. Lowry, like those who have tried before him, is moving much slower than he is used to, is tentative to make cuts, zoom around screens, push in transition and scramble on defense. What does the star, the fighter, the champion Lowry think of 1-of-12 shooting in the last two games? It’s a suffocating feeling to know how he appears on the court, and the numbers next to his name on the stat sheet, are not the real him. They’re the hamstring talking.
“I’ve got to play better in general, no matter what happens,” Lowry said. “It’s a team game, and we’re out there together. For me, just being in the right spots defensively and setting up guys offensively.
“I’ve been playing terrible,” he said. “It is what it is. I’m out there, so I’ve got to do a better job.”
Lowry’s understudy isn’t quite Isiah Thomas, but Gabe Vincent has for the most part acquired himself quite well in these playoffs. With Lowry dragging, 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 off the dribble. He competed on defense and for loose balls and moved without the ball in his hands on offense.
Vincent had a poor Game 4 in Boston, where he shot 2-of-10, but otherwise, he’s made eight starts, is averaging 8.6 points per game and is second on the Heat in assists.
And he’s healthy.
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 at much, much less than 100 percent. Lowry’s return in Game 3 of this series, after missing 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 tried his first comeback during the philadelphia series.
But now that it is clear Lowry isn’t himself, and there are other injuries to deal with too, the Heat need maximum production out of that 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 is going on with him is a terrible shooting slump at the worst possible time. Whether or not Strus is hurt, the other injuries plaguing the Heat leave them with almost no room to hope Strus snaps out of this slump.
Butler had another stinker of a game, and he hasn’t looked right or produced anywhere near the Playoff Jimmy we know him to be since the Heat let on that he had right knee irritation. After scoring 70 points in Games 1 and 2 of this series, and posting six games of 30 or more points in these playoffs, Butler has shot 10 of 35 in the last three games. He’s not able to get his own shot. He isn’t cutting to the hoop. Shooting 3s looks like a serious undertaking.
“If I’m out there, I’ve got to do better,” Butler said. “I’ve got to find a way to help us win, and I haven’t been doing that. I’m fine. My knee is OK. I’ve just got to do better. It’s no excuse.”
With Butler down, Bam Adebayo, the Heat’s other big name, has led them in scoring in two of the last three games. He was great in Game 3, with 31 points. On Wednesday, his 18 of him were the best any Miami player could do. The Celtics didn’t have Robert Williams III in Game 3, and Adebayo took advantage. With Williams and Al Horford in the lineup together, Adebayo has much less room to go to work with the ball. If his shots from him are hard to come by and Butler ca n’t get his own shot and the point guard position is compromised, the next answer is taking the roof off Boston’s defense with 3s.
Strus is a starter in the playoffs because Spoelstra swapped him in for Duncan Robinson — a $90 million man who has led the Heat in 3-point shooting for a couple of years but actually fell all the way out of the rotation this postseason. Robinson is back in it, and he’s hit seven 3s and scored 25 points in the last two games.
Again, Strus has had his moments. His 3-pointer near the end of Game 3 staved off a furious Boston comeback. Even with these last two clunkers, he’s still third on the Heat in 3-point percentage in the playoffs (PJ Tucker is No. 1; Robinson No. 2). The Heat believe Strus is the better defender between him and Robinson, and a case can be made that at this time, Strus can contribute without scoring, whereas Lowry has been wholly ineffective. But Strus can’t seem to shake free of the staunch Celtics defenders and use screens for proper separation. When he does, he’s missing open shots, which allows the Celtics to swarm Butler and hound Adebayo. It’s unsustainable for Miami.
Tyler Herro is another injured Heat star we haven’t yet discussed. 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. Whatever he gives will be much appreciated, but the Heat will need the other players used in the rotation operating at the highest capacity.
Spoelstra, a champion two times over who has never lost a conference finals in five previous series, was not about to sit at the dais and declare he was benching anyone. The immediate aftermath of Game 5 was not the time for that. He pleaded for time to look at the film for a better understanding, but he said he thought the Heat were getting good shots in the first half, competed defensively and were in position to win the game into the third quarter (this is true — Miami led by five at halftime). He said missed shots mounting in the third led to some defensive lapses.
Reporters tried to ask Spoelstra a couple of different times (and ways) about Lowry and Strus. He just wouldn’t buy into the narrative.
“I don’t think either one of them played outside of themselves,” Spoelstra said. “Even a lot of our actions and how the offense was functioning, I thought, was way more in our wheelhouse. We were much more purposeful and intentional. If you remove the emotion of the misses…”
Then Spoelstra looked down at the box score from Game 5. He saw the numbers next to Lowry and to Strus. And the overall team 3-point shooting percentage (.156). His eyes from him relayed to his brain from him the point that the point he was trying to make just was n’t adding up.
“OK, yeah, that’s not a great 3-point percentage,” he said, as the room burst into laughter. “We all felt it. We all saw it.”
We can see the next step too.
(Photo: Winslow Townson/Getty Images)