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Banged-up Heat have no choice but to embrace underdog role

Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler winces in pain during Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers on Sept. 30.
Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler winces in pain after injury an ankle during Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers on Wednesday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Jimmy Butler’s left ankle was wrapped in black tape. As he walked off the stage following his media session, he moved methodically, carefully applying the right amount of weight onto each of his slippered feet.

And he’s the Heat star in the best shape.

For Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Friday night, Miami could be without Bam Adebayo (neck strain) and Goran Dragic (torn plantar fascia). The pair are listed as “doubtful,” which also feels like the proper label to put on the Heat’s prospects.

After a handful of days spent rebuffing any talk about being “underdogs,” Butler knows the Heat have to fully embrace it now because no one could make a sensible argument that they’re anything but an underdog.

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“You’re talking about adversity; I mean, for us, we thrive in that,” Butler said Thursday. “I say it all the time, I mean, if you look at it, everybody probably thought they was going to do that to us anyways. They probably think they’re going to do it to us three more times in a row. I beg to differ.

“Nobody picked us to be here. Like I said, we embrace it. We love it. But we know that we can win. We do. But we know that we’ve got to play perfect, man.”

Perfection will be even harder without their starting center and point guard, even if it means more from Kendrick Nunn and Kelly Olynyk — two of the Heat players on the court when the team showed signs of life in the fourth quarter of Game 1.

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“You know, at this point, it’s all hands on deck,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And it’s not like the guys that were potentially sliding into the rotation haven’t played before. These guys have confidence and have played big roles for us all year long. Our depth has been one of our biggest strengths.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Danny Green sparked the scoring spree that turned Game 1 of the NBA Finals into a rout for the Lakers.

“It’s not just coach speak. We’ve utilized our depth all year long.”

The Heat were counting on their depth in this series with the Lakers. They can’t credibly think that they can match star power with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But with their three best players injured, and two doubtful to play, solving the Lakers’ puzzle gets more complex.

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Luckily for Miami, they have a coach who relishes finding answers to difficult questions — if it’s not his favorite position to be in after Game 1.

“You know, I’m not like sick in the mind like that. But this is when you feel most alive, when you’re being tested competitively and challenged in new ways, different ways,” Spoelstra said. “This is a quality opponent. This is the way the whole playoff system is supposed to be set up. It’s supposed to get tougher and more challenging every single round and may the best team win at the very end.

The NBA did its best to make Wednesday night not feel like last Wednesday night, but it was mostly fruitless, especially with the Lakers blowing out the Miami Heat 116-98.

“That’s what we’ll work for today. We took it on the chin last night. It only counts as one. But we know that we did not play well. We didn’t compete at a high enough level. The Lakers did. I thought they were the more physical team. And also we’re just playing their game and imposing their game way more than ours, and that’s what makes this matchup interesting. It’s contrasting styles, and so we’ll just work for some better solutions for tomorrow.”

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However they come to discover those solutions is irrelevant as long as the Heat find them.

“Coming into Game 2, all the adversity, backs against the wall, yadda, yadda, yadda …” Butler said, “we got to win.”

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