Miami Heat should bench Kyle Lowry, Max Strus to stop Celtics from NBA Finals berth

MIAMI — For the most part, the Heat didn’t want to use their myriad injuries as an excuse why they lost back-to-back in the East Finals, including the crucial Game 5, and are now on the verge of elimination.

“We’re not going to make any distractions or apologies – Boston beat us tonight. And let’s get that straight,” interjected Heat coach Erik Spoelstra Wednesday after Miami stuttered badly in the second half in a 93-80 loss to the Celtics.

Fine. But using injuries as an excuse for what Spoelstra has to do for Game 6 would help things go a little smoother.

He’ll likely have to bench Kyle Lowry and Max Strus. It is unseemly to say, or even think, of a player with such a distinguished pedigree as Lowry, and another who has risen from anonymity to meet every challenge he has been given up to this like ostrich. But there are few viable alternatives, the Celtics’ matchups are complex, and the season ends Friday in Boston if the Heat can’t come up with anything.

In their last two games, Lowry and Strus are 1-of-28. A basket. Twenty-eight attempts. Strus is a 0-fer in this stretch, 0-for-16. Lowry, on the other hand, played 25 minutes into Game 5 and didn’t record an assist. He committed five fouls, committed three turnovers and grabbed a single rebound.

OK, now Can we talk about injuries?

Lowry, 36, is playing with a bad left hamstring. Occasional followers of the Heat or the NBA playoffs also know this. Since returning for Game 3 against Boston, his performances have only deteriorated. He was okay in that first game (11 points, four assists) playing against a battered Marcus Smart, and won the Heat. But he hasn’t been able to make a dent in the last two games, and with everything else going wrong with Miami, the Heat can ill afford to get literally nothing out of their starting point keeper.

“When I’m out there I have to play and play better, it’s as simple as that,” Lowry said.

When I’m out there. Lowry used the phrase (or something very similar) three times during his post-game remarks. It may be a guess on the author’s part, but it sounded like Lowry was trying to say something without saying it, such as: Yes, I’m hurt and it’s costing meor, maybe I’m not the best choice right now because I can’t move.

Lowry won an NBA title with the Raptors in 2019. He is a six-time All-Star. He has been hailed as an excellent, disruptive defender for years. And most importantly, the Heat signed him to a three-year, $85 million deal for just this moment last summer to be Miami’s missing piece alongside Jimmy Butler, where everything is on the line.

So using him in the most important game of the season isn’t an easy decision, and the star in Lowry, the fighter, the champion and the ego that goes with all those things would (vehemently) object to the idea.

But playing with a hamstring injury is such a revealing, humiliating experience. Lowry, like everyone who’s tried before him, moves much slower than he’s used to, is hesitant to make cuts, zoom around screens, push transitions and scramble on defense. What does the star, the fighter, the champ Lowry think of shooting 1-of-12 in the last two games? It’s stifling to know how he’ll appear on the pitch and the numbers next to his name on the stat sheet aren’t really him. You’re talking about the Achilles tendon.

“I have to play better in general, no matter what,” said Lowry. “It’s a team game and we’re out there together. For me, just be in the right places defensively and line up the lads offensively.

“I played terribly,” he said. “It is what it is. I’m out there, so I have to do a better job.”

Lowry’s understudy isn’t quite Isiah Thomas, but Gabe Vincent has done reasonably well in most of these playoffs. While Lowry was dragging, Vincent came off the bench for 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting. He missed a few 3s, but Vincent was able to beat Smart and others at dribbling. He competed on defense and for loose balls, and moved off-hand on offense.

Vincent had a bad Game 4 in Boston, where he shot 2 of 10, but otherwise he has made eight starts, is averaging 8.6 points per game and is second in the heat in assists.

And he’s healthy.

Actually, earlier in the playoffs, in this area, it was argued that the Heats were better with a healthy Vincent than with a Lowry playing much, much less than 100 percent. Lowry’s return in Game 3 of that series after missing Miami’s previous four games made sense at the time, especially when he was in a better position to make an impact than he was when he made his first comeback during the Philadelphia series tried.

But now that it’s clear that Lowry isn’t himself and there are other injuries to deal with as well, the Heat needs to perform to the max from this spot on the ground.

Strus is actually on the injury report with a hamstring problem, but it’s not something the Heat ever discuss and nobody even mentioned it when trying to figure out what’s wrong with him.

What’s going on with him is a horrific filming slump at the worst possible time. Whether or not Strus is injured, the other injuries plaguing the Heat leave them almost no room for hope that Strus will come out of this slump.

Butler has had another stinky game, and he hasn’t looked properly or produced anywhere near the playoff Jimmy we know since the Heat hinted he had a right knee irritation. After 70 points in Games 1 and 2 of this series and six games of 30 points or more in these playoffs, Butler has shot 10-of-35 in the last three games. He is unable to get his own shot. It doesn’t cut all the way to the tire. Shooting 3s looks like a serious endeavor.

“When I’m out there, I have to do better,” Butler said. “I have to find a way to help us win and I didn’t do that. I’m fine. My knee is fine. I just have to do better. That is not an excuse.”

With Butler out, the Heat’s other big name, Bam Adebayo, has led them as top scorer in two of their last three games. He was great in Game 3 with 31 points. On Wednesday, his 18 was the best a Miami player could achieve. The Celtics didn’t have Robert Williams III in Game 3 and Adebayo took advantage. With Williams and Al Horford together in the line-up, Adebayo has much less room to work with the ball. When his shots are hard to come by and Butler can’t get his own shot and the point guard’s position is in jeopardy, the next answer is to take the roof off Boston’s defense with 3s.

Strus is a starter in the playoffs because Spoelstra traded him for Duncan Robinson — a $90 million man who led the Heat in 3-point shooting for a couple of years but is actually completely out of the game this postseason rotation has fallen. Robinson is back and he’s hit seven 3s and has 25 points in the last two games.

Strus had his moments here too. His 3-pointer near the end of Game 3 prevented a furious Boston comeback. Even with those last two clunkers, he’s still third in the heat in 3-point percent in the playoffs (PJ Tucker is No. 1; Robinson is No. 2). The Heat believe Strus is the better defender between him and Robinson and it can be argued that Strus can contribute without a goal at this point while Lowry has been completely ineffective. But Strus can’t seem to break away from the staunch Celtics defenders and use screens for a proper breakup. When he does, he misses open shots, allowing the Celtics to swarm Butler and chase Adebayo. This is not sustainable for Miami.

Tyler Herro is another injured Heat star we haven’t talked about yet. He’s missed the last two games with a strained left bar, and even if Herro plays Game 6 he won’t be 100 percent. Whatever he gives is greatly appreciated, but the Heat will need the other players deployed in the rotation to work at peak capacity.

Spoelstra, a two-time champion who has never lost a conference final in five previous series, didn’t want to sit on the podium and explain that he’s benching someone. There wasn’t time for that immediately after Game 5. He asked for time to watch the film for better understanding, but said he thinks the Heat shot well in the first half, played defensively and were capable of winning the game into the third quarter (that’s right – Miami led at halftime of five). He said missing shots in the third led to some defensive mistakes.

Reporters tried asking Spoelstra about Lowry and Strus a few times (and in different ways). He just wouldn’t believe the tale.

“I don’t think any of them played outside of themselves,” Spoelstra said. “Even a lot of our actions and how the offensive worked was a lot more in our wheelhouse, I think. We were much more purposeful and intentional. When you remove the emotions of failure…”

Spoelstra then looked at the Game 5 box score. He saw the numbers alongside Lowry and Strus. And the overall team 3-point shooting percentage (0.156). His eyes relayed the point to his brain that the point he was trying to make just didn’t add up.

“OK, yeah, that’s not a great 3 point percentage,” he said as the room erupted in laughter. “We all felt that. We all saw it.”

We can also see the next step.

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(Photo: Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

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