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Column: Heat prevailing over injuries and doubters to challenge Lakers on NBA title climb

Lakers guard Alex Caruso battles for a loose ball with Miami's Tyler Herro, left, and Andre Iguodala in the third quarter.
Lakers guard Alex Caruso, center, battles for a loose ball with Miami’s Tyler Herro, left, and Andre Iguodala in the third quarter.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Miami Heat are the little engine that could, the NBA’s version of the valiant train engine whose perseverance powered its seemingly impossible climb over a forbidding hill in the charming children’s storybook.

The Heat thought they could beat the Lakers, despite being at a disadvantage in height, rebounding, and star power. The Heat believed they could beat the Lakers, even after losing starters Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic to injuries after Game 1 of the NBA Finals. A blowout loss in the opener and a failed charge late in Game 2 didn’t dent their optimism that they could prevail.

“We just couldn’t get over the hill, get over that hump, and crank into that game,” Miami reserve Kelly Olynyk said of his team’s Game 2 defeat. “But we felt we were right there for the majority of that game. So we knew that we could have success on both ends of the floor. We just had to come out and execute.”

Finally, in Game 3, the Heat did get over that hill. Hope turned into reality in their 115-104 victory on Sunday, and a series that was shaping up to be a waltz for the Lakers suddenly became a lot more interesting as both teams recover and regroup for Game 4 on Tuesday.

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“We believe in ourselves. We’re here for a reason,” said Olynyk, who couldn’t crack Miami’s rotation in two of its last three games against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals but came off the bench to contribute 24 points on Friday and 17 on Sunday. “We’re down a couple guys, but we have some other guys who are getting ready to step up and play their part.”

Jimmy Butler did the majority of the heavy lifting on Sunday, delivering an astonishing 40-point, 11-rebound, 13-assist triple-double performance. “We rode him out. He led the entire game. We was just on his back,” forward Jae Crowder said. “He was making plays for himself, he made plays for others, and he got us a win tonight.”

The Heat had needed a motivational speech from teammate Udonis Haslem to get fired up during the third quarter of Game 2. Butler’s play served that purpose for them on Sunday.

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Highlights from the Lakers’ loss to the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Sunday.

“He did everything for us, both sides of the ball. Just talk about accepting the challenge, rising to the occasion,” guard Duncan Robinson said. “His leadership is really special. He’s only yelling at us if we’re not where we should be or if we’re not shooting. He’s constantly encouraging and breathing life into people, and it’s just great to have that type of guy as your leader.”

Butler had strong support at both ends of the floor, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra came up with a smart defensive game plan to diminish Anthony Davis’ impact. Switching away from a zone defense helped get Davis in early foul trouble — he was limited to 15 points and five rebounds, a significant dropoff from his 32-point, 14-rebound effort in Game 2.

“We just tried to set a tone and be physical with him,” Crowder said. “His rebounding and stuff came with our zone defense, so we tried to man-up as much as possible in this game and get a body on him. … I feel our man-to-man defense was able to sustain him a little bit, hold him to what we wanted to on the boards.”

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Jimmy Butler had a 40-point triple-double to lead the Miami Heat to a 115-104 win in Game 3 of the NBA Finals to cut the Lakers’ lead in the series to 2-1.

The Lakers should be concerned, too, that Miami outscored them in all four quarters on Sunday and has outscored or been even with them in six straight consecutive quarters over the last two games. Butler’s fingerprints were all over that on Sunday, but Olynyk, Tyler Herro (17 points) and Robinson (13 points) played their part in a 51.2% shooting performance for Miami.

Extending the series will give Adebayo (neck injury) and Dragic (torn plantar fascia) more time to heal. Adebayo warmed up before Sunday’s game and was listed among the active players but didn’t play. “We’ve been having players step up for us this whole playoff push, so it’s no different now that two of our main guys are out,” Crowder said. “Our spirits were high. We didn’t feel sorry for ourselves. I said that [Sunday] morning, we’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves. We made it this far, and we’re going to continue to depend on one another and trust each other and trust the process of just coming out and competing and giving our best each and every night.”

They channeled their hope and belief into a win that carried them over that steep hill, but they’ve got more mountains to climb. They’ll face those obstacles with the same optimism that carried them this far as the No. 5 seed in the East, and they’ll also bring a healthy dose of the aggressiveness that gave the Lakers problems on Sunday. If the Lakers are going to be champions, they will feel the Heat every step the rest of the way.

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The Lakers lost to the Miami Heat 115-104 on Sunday night in the best-of-seven NBA Finals series. Here are the best photos from the game.

“Game 1 and 2 we felt like they punked us a little bit. They were being a lot more physical than we were, and that’s just not how we play basketball as an organization,” Herro said. On Sunday “we wanted to come out with a lot more energy and focus and make it fearless at both ends of the floor. We did a good job of that, but it’s not going to be enough to win the series.

“The next game, we’re going to have to bring more energy, more focus, and just keep continuing to get better.”

They think they can. It’s up to the Lakers to prove otherwise.

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Elliott reported from Los Angeles.


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