The part they forget is, for that to happen, the Bucks had to win two conference finals games without him, one of them on the road. When Antetokounmpo hurt his knee in Game 4 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals, a game the Bucks would lose, which tied the series at 2-2, it was up to the other Bucks to bail him out. And bail they did: Milwaukee won twice by double figures to sew up a spot in the Finals, Giannis came back, and the rest is history.
Which brings us to today’s big concept: margin of error.
Everyone wants to think about how good their team is when it has all its key players in the lineup, and that’s fine. We all dare to dream about best-case scenarios.
But what if one key player is out? Or even, dare we say, two? Is your team still good enough to survive and advance through the NBA bracket? Or does it shrivel into an easy out if it doesn’t have access to one peak lineup?
That question is being asked, and in some cases answered, throughout the NBA right now. While some regret that injuries are ruining the playoffs, the reality is most teams, most of the time, have at least one fairly important player out of the lineup.
Thus, the question for contenders and quasi-contenders is how well they can play even with a key piece missing. boston without Robert Williams? Looks like it might be OK. milwaukee without Chris Middleton? Maybe it’s a problem next round, but it no longer seems as if the Chicago Bulls are going to trouble the Bucks. phoenix without Devin Booker? Staying the course. the Mav’s without Luka Doncic? Surprisingly thriving.
This is nothing new, of course. Though we can regret what last year’s playoffs might have been had Antetokounmpo, james harden, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Bring Young, Donovan Mitchell and jamal murray been at full strength all spring, not to mention if some lesser key lights had been available (how much would Dario Šarić have mattered in the finals, or Danny Green in the second round?), the reality is that’s not how it works. Whether it’s the regular season or the playoffs, winning in the NBA means winning without a key player or two. The “next man up” mentality isn’t just for the NFL.
And the latest to join the list: What of the Miami Heat without Kyle Lowry? The Heat blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and lost Friday’s Game 3 to the Hawks 111-110, but a development with far greater long-run implications had already taken place one quarter earlier: Lowry got tangled up with Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter, who appeared to step on his foot. Lowry lost his shoe in the process and apparently injured his left hamstring.
Miami called timeout, and Lowry grabbed his shoe, limped off the court and wasn’t heard from again. Though Miami offered no further comment on the severity of the injury, this appeared to be more than just some trifling tickle. Lowry could be seen limping to the team bus long after the game had ended; even a Grade 1 hamstring strain — which is what Booker has — would likely knock him out for the rest of this series and at least the first two games of the next one.
Which brings us back to that concept again: margin of error. Is the Heat roster resilient enough to win without Lowry? And what vulnerabilities might his absence expose?
Fortunately for Miami, it has spent much of the year providing encouraging answers to these exact questions. The Heat recorded the East’s best record despite missing Lowry for 19 games, Jimmy Butler for 25 and Bam Adebayo for 26.
Particularly for this series, I’m not sure the Heat have a lot to worry about. Historically, a No. 1 seed versus No. 8 seed series where the top seed has won the first two games at home is pretty much over already. Miami’s record in games Lowry missed (12-7) is still better than Atlanta’s record in the games Young has played (43-38, including the postseason). atlanta might extend the series by holding court at home (anybody remember that Boston series in 2008?), but it remains difficult to imagine the hawks winning Item.
That said, the Heat roster wasn’t built with the goal of outlasting a flawed Hawks team with injuries of its own (Clint Capela is still out, and John Collins is ambling along at 50 percent). If the Heat are going to not just survive this round but thrive into the next one, against a much tougher opponent, Friday’s Game 3 defeat provides some question marks.
At the moment Lowry went out, Miami’s defense was absolutely strangling the Hawks. They had scored just seven points in the first 10 minutes of the third quarter, and Bogdan Bogdanovic — who has been a thorn in the side all season — had just been rushed into a traveling violation. The Hawks were coming unglued, down by 16 points after a 21-0 Heat run, with a 3-0 series deficit staring them in the face. Cancun beckoned.
We all know what happened after: Atlanta inserted Delon Wright and Onyeka Okongwuthose two and Bogdanović played lights-out down the stretch, and Young finally figured out some of the weak points in Miami’s defense.
The Heat’s coverage on Young in particular has been absolutely masterful in this series; through three games he has a 9.0 PER and as many as turnovers (19) as assists. You can see his frustration from him pouring out in every rushed 30-foot 3-point try with 21 seconds on the shot clock.
That said, Miami opened the door defensively without Lowry by inserting both Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson into the game at the same time. Units with Herro and Robinson are potentially potent offensively, but the risk is that any opponent with good wings can exploit them at the other end. If Atlanta can exploit this, what, pray tell, might Boston do?
With the Heat’s best perimeter defender assigned to Young, that left one of Herro or Robinson to deal with Bogdanović. It is very apparent that Bogie sees fresh Wagyu any time either player is assigned to him; it’s been the Hawks’ biggest (only?) advantage in this series.
Units with either Robinson or Herro in them have been the glaring exception to Miami’s defensive dominance in the series; the Heat have a 123.0 defensive rating in Herro’s minutes and 114.5 in Robinson’s. That’s small-sample theater, obviously, but it tracks with the regular season, where the Herro-Robinson pairing surrendered 109.9 points per 100 possessions despite mostly facing opposition second units. (Miami’s best grouping of the regulars, as you might expect, was Lowry-Adebayo at 103.2.)
Herro, it should be said, did a great job on Atlanta’s penultimate possession, cutting off Young’s driving angle and then denying him a return pass once he had to give up the ball:
Herro’s ability to hold up is potentially hugely important now that Lowry is likely to be out for a while. Though Herro was already playing a ton, now he must tread water more often in units with at least one other suspect defender. The Heat have some options for Lowry’s minutes that could take them in a more defensive direction — based on precedent, they would likely start Gabe Vincent, and we might see a reprise of Caleb Martin’s energizer role from Game 2. But those aren’t fourth-quarter solutions; it seems likely the crunch-time guards will be Herro and either Max Strus or Robinson. Can they hold up defensively?
Also, we need to talk about the other side of the coin. Even before Game 3, Miami had quietly labored to generate offense against an extremely cookable Hawks defense. Though some lineup shifts for Atlanta have made it a bit more stout than its 26th-place regular-season performance (most notably, replacing louis williams with Wright), both Herro and Adebayo have struggled to get going in this series. Herro’s 24 points in Game 3 represented something of a breakout, but he needed 22 shots to do it and again got himself in trouble by relying on tough runners.
Adebayo, meanwhile, had fits dealing with Okongwu. Yes, Okongwu might have had the best quarter of his life on Friday, but you still expect more out of a Bam than whatever this is:
In a key moment of the fourth quarter, Adebayo held the ball for eight seconds, took zero dribbles and then launched a contested long 2. Yuck. Through three games, Adebayo is averaging just 9.3 points, while Herro has 9.0 PER on 49.2 true shooting. Getting those two going is paramount for Miami to survive games in the next round — and perhaps beyond — without Lowry.
That said, there is still very little risk in the current series. Miami shot 14-of-45 from 3, mostly on catch-and-shoots from its better shooters, and lost by a single point. The Hawks still have no answer for Butler other than hoping he misses (as he did on his last two jumpers; kudos to Hunter for shading him to his right on the last play), and the Heat defense still has Atlanta’s best player flustered.
Again, margin of error. In this series, the Heat clearly have it, and they’ve proven all year they can adapt to injuries as well as any team in the league. What the Game 3 loss makes you question, at least a little, is whether that still applies against the league’s heavyweights in the series that follow.
(Photo by Kyle Lowry: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)