It doesn't get much more difficult than trying to replace not one, but two starters in the NBA Finals.
The Miami Heat have been up to the challenge. Despite playing without All-Star centre Bam Adebayo (neck) and veteran guard Goran Dragic (foot) in Games 2 and 3, the Heat find their title hopes still alive as they trail their series with the Los Angeles Lakers 2-1.
While superstar Jimmy Butler's incredible Game 3 performance led to its first win of the series, Miami has somehow been more competitive in the two games it's played without Adebayo and Dragic than the one game it played with each of them in the lineup. How is that possible?
They've had a couple different players step up in the absence of their two starters - players that may have earned themselves more playing time even if/when Adebayo and Dragic return.
While it appears as though Adebayo could return for Game 4, Dragic is still without a timetable to get back on the floor, which means the Heat will need these players to continue to step up for likely the remainder of the series.
So who are the guys that have filled this gap in production?
Starters: Meyers Leonard and Tyler Herro
To some surprise, Leonard has slid into the starting lineup in place of the injured Adebayo. The reserve centre didn't appear in 15 of Miami's first 16 postseason games, logging less than nine total minutes in the entire playoffs before head coach Erik Spoelstra called on him to join the starting five.
Standing in at 7-feet, 260 lbs., the move makes sense, as Leonard is able to match up physically with a big Lakers team. While he's more or less a placeholder to begin the game, playing 11.5 minutes over his two Finals apperances, the backup big man has been solid in his brief time, scoring a total of 14 points, while shooting 5-for-6 from the field and 2-for-2 from beyond the arc; it's a credit to Leonard for staying ready despite a number of DNP's (Did Not Play) to begin the postseason.
Should Adebayo return in Game 4 - or at any point in this series - Leonard is surely the first player to have his minutes cut, but it speaks volumes of the type of character he has that Spoelstra was confident in going to him in a time of desperate measure.
To much less of a surprise, Spoelstra was able to bump Herro into the starting lineup with no hesitation. Following a breakout Eastern Conference Finals where his historic 37-point outburst in Game 4 helped decide the series, it was clear that the rookie was ready for any moment. Making the first two playoff starts of his career in the Finals was just affirmation of that.
Herro had his struggles in Game 1 (he tied Kobe Bryant for the worst plus/minus in NBA Finals history at minus-35) and he hasn't shot the ball as well as we're used to seeing, going 35.4% from the field and 27.8% from beyond the arc through the first three games.
But that doesn't mean anyone's second-guessing his readiness for this opportunity.
Despite going 3-for-13 from the field and 1-for-5 from 3-point range in the first three quarters of what was essentially a must-win Game 3, Herro stepped up in the fourth quarter. Able to block out his lapses from earlier in the contest, he went for eight points, shooting 3-for-5 from the field and 1-for-2 from 3 in the final frame. His and-one finish late in the fourth quarter - and viral snarling look that went with it - helped close out the team's first win of the series.
Tyler Christopher Herro pic.twitter.com/NfU3Vp8RGb- Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) October 5, 2020
Beyond his scoring, he's helped share ball handling duties with Butler and there are rarely moments where his age (at 20, Herro is the first person born in the year 2000 to play in the Finals) is apparent. With Dragic expected to be sidelined for perhaps the remainder of the series, get used to seeing big minutes from Herro.
Off the bench: Kelly Olynyk and Kendrick Nunn
While his uptick in minutes has come from off the bench, that doesn't make Olynyk any less important to this operation in replacing the Heat's two key starters. In fact, Olynyk has been the most vital player that's stepping up to keep Miami's title hopes alive.
The Canadian's numbers in Games 3 and 4 are ridiculous - in averaging 20.5 points and 8.0 rebounds while shooting 56.0% from the field and 50.0% from beyond the arc, Butler is the only member of the Heat that has produced more on the offensive end. Olynyk's 41 points off the bench during that two-game stretch puts him in historic company, joining Jason Terry (2011) as the only players over the last 30 years to score 40-plus points in two-game span off the bench in the Finals.
Next. Man. Up.@KellyOlynyk finished with 17 points (3 3PT FG), 7 rebounds & 2 steals in Game 3.- Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) October 5, 2020
🔥🎥 #HEATHighlights pic.twitter.com/J3DBhGxkfb
He's been the perfect mismatch for Los Angeles bigs, doing the majority of his damage from the perimeter where they very rarely venture out. His sharp shooting has played a role in extending the Lakers defence, opening things up inside as evidence of Miami's series-high 52 points in the paint in Game 3.
Even when Adebayo does return to the lineup, Olynyk has certainly proven his value to the Heat's chances at winning this series during their All-Star centre's absence.
The last of Miami's players to see an increased role due to injuries is All-Rookie First Team member Nunn.
It's been a rollercoaster rookie season for the 25-year-old guard, who started in each of the 67 regular season contests he appeared in for the Heat. Once the playoffs rolled around and Spoelstra elected to start the veteran Dragic, Nunn fell out of the team's rotation.
Appearing in just nine of the team's playoff games prior to the Finals, Nunn's averages of 3.2 points and 1.0 assists shooting 29.3% from the field and 15.0% from 3-point land in 15.1 minutes per game weren't nearly enough to keep him on the floor.
In the waining minutes of a blowout Game 1, Nunn's effort and energy earned him another crack at some playing time with Dragic's foot injury. Scoring 18 points shooting 8-for-11 from the field and 2-for-4 from 3 with five rebounds and two assists in that contest, Spoelstra elected to go back to his All-Rookie guard in Games 2 and 3.
Nunn better time to catch a rhythm than the #NBAFinals- Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) October 1, 2020
Kendrick opened the series with 18 points (8-11 FG), 5 rebounds and 2 assists in 20 minutes off the bench.
🔥🎥 #HEATHighlights pic.twitter.com/DCutPGRbuZ
While foul trouble limited his role in the team's Game 3 win, he's averaged a much better 11.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists shooting 61.9% from the field and 33.3% from deep in 23 minutes per game.
With Dragic expected to stay on the sidelines for at least one more game - and in a worst-case scenario, the rest of the series - Nunn should continue to see opportunties to prove that he can replicate his regular season production on the NBA Finals stage.
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