MIAMI — The Miami Heat are not an organization interested in moral victories, but they got one Friday night nonetheless in a 113-110 loss to the Lakers, who remain tied with Milwaukee for the best record in the league at 23-3.
It was Miami’s first home loss this season.
Playing without Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic, two major pieces, Miami battled the Lakers until the end. The Heat built a 14-point lead in the second quarter and led by eight at halftime. The Lakers engineered a 19-point turnaround in the third quarter, building their own 11-point lead. It felt like Miami was about to die. Next thing you knew, rookie Tyler Herro was taking a 3-pointer to tie the score going into the fourth.
The Heat had three potential game-tying 3-pointers, in fact — the last of which came off the hands of Jimmy Butler at the regulation buzzer. It fell short. The Heat lost. But in the big picture, this is a win.
Again, the Heat won’t tell you that. Jimmy Butler certainly won’t tell you that.
“We don’t go into any game thinking we’re going to lose,” Butler said afterward. “… This outcome is just telling us what it takes to be elite and we just aren’t there yet.”
Butler’s right. This Heat team isn’t elite. But perspective is important. This is a team that won 39 games last season. They added Butler in the summer, but expectations, at least nationally, were still lukewarm. Now Miami, starting a pair of undrafted players in Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, is 18-7 and taking arguably the best team in the league to the wire without Winslow and Dragic.
Winslow, notably, represents a primary LeBron defender. Instead, Derrick Jones Jr. got a lot of the assignments and acquitted himself well. The Heat forced LeBron into eight turnovers, seven of which came in the first half.
“We were aggressive on defense and getting into the passing lanes and making it tough for them [in the first half],” Butler said.
Miami lost this game, first, on the boards (they were out-rebounded 50-34, including 14-5 on the offensive glass), and then in the third quarter, when LeBron and Anthony Davis became, well, LeBron and Anthony Davis, combining for 22 points in the quarter on 8-of-11 shooting, including a collective 4 of 6 from three. Watching Davis, at 6-foot-10, pop out off a screen for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer and drill it like he’s Reggie Miller will never not be remarkable.
Davis did this multiple times.
Think about this. That is Danny Green, a world-class 3-point shooter himself, setting a screen for 6-foot-10 Anthony Davis to take a 3-pointer in a two-point game with under two minutes to play. If you want a snapshot of basketball in 2019, that is it. For Davis to feel his defender going under that screen and fade back to daylight for the open look is the stuff of guys like Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton and Steph Curry, guys who have made their careers off feeling screening actions and gravitating to space.
Davis is a center, regardless of what he tells you. To have that kind of perimeter feel for space is completely amazing. He is just a one-of-a-kind talent. He’s so talented, in fact, that he has the clout to question LeBron about the way he was playing at halftime.
“I had to get on him tonight, he was thinking too much and playing a little timid for me because he had two fouls,” Davis said in his on-court interview after the game. “But I told him, ‘man we’re going to ride with you.'”
LeBron answered the call, finishing with 28 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds on 4-of-8 shooting from three. To think he was only good for half this game and still put up that line is crazy. This Lakers team is so nasty. The Heat are not there yet. But make no mistake: they are damn good.
When you come to a game in Miami, you very quickly get used to opposing coaches and players saying how tough of a game they know they’re in for when they play the Heat. Everyone says it. The Heat battle you with everything they have. They defend. They move the ball. They make you work. This is not a team, even when they were a 39-win unit, that you want to play.
But now, you really don’t want to play them.
Now they have the talent to go with their grit.
“This is a high-potential team in the East,” Green said. “I see them doing some special things in the long run, in April, May and June. I see them making some pretty good noise.”