NBA Finals: How the Heat can still shake the Lakers

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Almost every competitive playoff series reaches a point of strategic equilibrium. All the big adjustments have been made. All that is left is to rearrange the fringes: making tiny rotation tweaks; layering counter atop counter to sets the opponent has smothered in their basic forms; varying the location of those sets. It is a search for any edge that might last two possessions.

Barring the return of Goran Dragic, it felt like the NBA Finals reached that equilibrium in Game 4. Both defenses optimized. Bam Adebayo started the game on Anthony Davis, leaving Jae Crowder jostling with Dwight Howard. Howard couldn’t exploit that size mismatch and had trouble chasing Miami shooters pinging off Adebayo picks. Frank Vogel started Markieff Morris in Howard’s place in the second half.

Davis defended Jimmy Butler and ducked under screens — averting the switches and resulting mismatches Butler had brutalized in Miami’s Game 3 win. LeBron James toggled onto Adebayo, allowing the Lakers to switch any Butler-Adebayo action.

Maybe we will see an unexpected wrinkle in Game 5 on Friday night. Maybe the Heat unearth Derrick Jones Jr. for a few minutes, or bring back zone defense in smaller doses. The Lakers have the zone solved, but it might work as a surprise to break L.A.’s rhythm. We saw a snippet of the Kelly Olynyk-Adebayo pairing, perhaps a way to limit the minutes in which three non-shooters (Butler, Adebayo, and Andre Iguodala) share the floor. The zone also protects Olynyk on defense.1

But those don’t shake the ground underneath this series. Dragic returning would, but that has seemed unlikely since he tore his left plantar fascia in Game 1.

You can’t help but feel for Dragic. An itinerant and valiant career crescendoed to this series. Ten years ago, Dragic was a turbocharged, second-year apprentice to Steve Nash with the Phoenix Suns when he gave us one of those organic, impossible-to-predict playoff moments you know is special even as it’s happening: 23 points in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs, Nash smiling from the bench as Phoenix snatched a 3-0 lead over its archnemesis.

Dragic never got back to the conference finals — until this year. He wandered to Houston, then Phoenix again after the Rockets acquired James Harden. Dragic helped sabotage Phoenix’s plan to tank in 2013-14, when he made his only All-NBA team. He grew unhappy; the Heat gave up a lot to rescue him. The payoff waxed and waned — until this postseason, when Dragic played some of the best basketball of his nike nfl jersey

You felt his absence down the stretch of Game 4. With the Butler-Adebayo fulcrum stymied, Miami searched for offense — mostly leaning on Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro rocketing off picks. The Lakers were ready.

With Dragic’s health uncertain, here are Big Numbers to watch as the Heat try to prolong this season.