Survive or celebrate – the stakes are the same for the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers heading into game six of the NBA Finals on Sunday less than 48 hours after Miami’s riveting game-five triumph.
Energy, adjustments, and possible injuries – most notably to Lakers superstar Anthony Davis – will be crucial as the Lakers try once again to secure the 17th NBA title in franchise history and their first since 2010.
The champagne was on ice and the confetti machines were courtside ready to spew Lakers purple and gold on Friday, but Jimmy Butler and the Heat put the celebrations on hold with a gritty 111-108 victory in the NBA’s quarantine bubble in Orlando.
They withstood a 40-point performance from LeBron James to do it, and still trail 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
“It’s win or win for us,” Butler said. “We like it this way.”
Despite Butler’s 35-point triple-double – not to mention 26 points from undrafted second-year forward Duncan Robinson that included seven three-pointers – the Lakers had a chance to seal a victory late.
With seven seconds remaining, James, swarmed by Miami defenders under the basket, kicked the ball out to a wide-open Danny Green at the top of the arc.
Green’s three-point attempt clanked off the rim, the rebound falling to Lakers reserve Markieff Morris, who promptly threw the ball away.
“It’s a tough loss,” admitted Lakers coach Frank Vogel, who thought two poor calls put Butler on the foul line for crucial late free throws, calling it “unfortunate in a game of this magnitude.”
But Vogel was confident there would be no emotional let-down in game six.
“Our group’s fine,” he said, although physical recovery could be more of a problem.
Davis vowed he’d be “fine” for game six after aggravating a sore right heel late in the first quarter on Friday, his obvious pain sending a shudder down the spines of Lakers faithful.
He remained in the game, putting up 28 points and pulling down 12 rebounds with three blocked shots, but his mobility was clearly affected late.
The Lakers’ official injury report on Saturday listed Davis as “probable” to play in game six.
“He’s a warrior,” James said of Davis, adding that even in a limited capacity he was a valuable asset.
“Just him being out there, hobbled, just brings a lot more confidence to myself and our team.”
James and Davis need more help from their supporting cast, however, and the Lakers know it. James now has 10 playoff defeats in which he has scored 40 points – second behind the 12 of Michael Jordan.
“He steps up in big moments,” Lakers guard Alex Caruso said of James. “It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t make one more play for him either defensively or offensively to help him out, because he was giving it his all.”
The Heat, meanwhile, are only growing in confidence. Butler is the driving force, but even with high-scoring guard Goran Dragic sidelined with a torn plantar fascia suffered in game one, Butler isn’t a one-man band.
Dragic was listed Saturday as “doubtful” for game six.
But all five Heat starters scored at least 11 points on Friday and Kendrick Nunn added 14 off the bench.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra likened Robinson, Nunn and rookie Tyler Herro to “sticks of dynamite.”
“They can go off at any time,” he said.
Can they blow the Lakers title aspirations sky high? It will be tough.
Only one team has come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals – the James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016.
“I think it’s going to be even harder for us next game,” Butler said. “But I like our chances.”