1. Weird start, followed by a very normal half which in itself was a little weird. Bam Adebayo picked up his first foul less than a minute into the game – only the eighth time in his entire career that that’s happened – and picked up a couple more along the way to limit himself to nine first-half minutes, but the HEAT were otherwise just fine at the outset. Ball popping. Bodies cutting. Threes falling.
It wasn’t all good, with Miami’s 13 turnovers standing as their second-most in any half this season. Some of those were simple mistakes, trying to make plays when the play wasn’t there to be made, but Cleveland’s length and rotations can induce some simple mistakes when you’re trying to pass you’re way into better looks. But with the zone giving Cleveland a few fits of stagnancy – at least in the opening period – everything was pretty even on balance. With Jimmy Butler getting himself to the line, the HEAT were able to mitigate the damage of Adebayo’s third foul with 7:25 in the second, going from down one to down just four over that stretch without their star center.
Miami got a gift of their own early in the third when Jarrett Allen picked up his third foul with nine minutes to go, but Cleveland pushed their lead to double digits all the same thanks to a few threes falling. The HEAT started to get jammed up on offense in the second quarter even as some shots went in, and the third continued that trend with Miami working up against the shot clock but still finding enough relief points – even scoring off two airballs. Still couldn’t shake the turnovers, though, and with 19 through three the HEAT were probably a little fortunate to only be down five going into the fourth.
Of course, another clutch game because obviously. It wasn’t a graceful finish, and at times it didn’t make much sense, but it was compelling. Cleveland held onto a two or three possession lead for much of the quarter, leading by five with just over three to play after an Adebayo and-one. Miami gets it to one as the free-throws flowed, but Cavs took it back to five with 49 seconds left. Everything looked over and done with when Cleveland got a stop, but a five-second violation turned into a Tyler Herro corner three – off a perfect Caleb Martin pass off the inbound – to bring it back to two with 20 seconds to play. Max Strus had a shot to tie it, but it missed off iron and Cleveland held on, 104-100, for Miami’s 37th game this season decided by five points or less (41 is the NBA record).
2. You aren’t going to win many games when you commit 24 turnovers. Nor are you going to win many games making just eight threes. So when you do both of those things on the same night, your chances of winning would logically plummet. And yet the HEAT had a chance, a very good chance, of pulling off the improbable.
That doesn’t excuse those two factors. Miami had the shots that didn’t fall, and the turnovers cost them throughout, especially whenever they were putting together a run. But the defense gave them that chance, limiting the Cavaliers to 17 points in the fourth. There were quite a few crossmatches all night, but the HEAT did well to avoid switching weaker defenders onto the best of the Cavaliers, committing two to the ball if they had to just to slow things down. Only 18 points on 18 shots for Donovan Mitchell, with Darius Garland getting to 25 on 16 shots thanks to some particularly tough finishes in the paint. The HEAT scored well enough in the paint – 25 makes, 14-of-17 at the rim – for a win on any other evening, so if they can keep the rest of their performance consistent while eliminating one of the two problems areas, turnovers or shooting, they should be in just fine shape for Friday’s rematch. Especially with Jimmy Butler (28 points on 14 shots) drawing fouls at the same rate as Giannis Antetokounmpo.
3. While Cleveland’s two best shooters – Mitchell and Garland – are elite, red alert shooters, their rotation features a number of players who could be called average at best beyond the arc. Interestingly, coach J.B. Bickerstaff decided to double down on defense, at times pairing Isaac Okoro and Lamar Stevens at the same time – those two have just over 200 possessions shared this year – which depleted Cleveland’s shooting options even further.
Erik Spoelstra isn’t always one to just concede shots, at least not until the playoffs where they are more than happy to let someone like Matisse Thybulle launch as much as he wants, but with plenty of zone on the docket and plenty more attention being paid to paint attackers and finishers, the HEAT were generally willing to leave a corner open if they didn’t feel threatened by the shooter taking the shot – and this is from a team that already gives up a very high volume of corner threes. It’s a gambit that worked when it worked and didn’t when it didn’t. Okoro hit a few open threes while Stevens missed a few when Cleveland had a chance to really stretch the lead a bit, but generally Cleveland was scoring well enough, even with just average overall shooting, to justify their defensive-focused lineups. That reversed a bit in the fourth, when the offense hit the mud and the paint was often closed off as a result of Miami’s shrinking in extra defenders, but by that point the Cavaliers were committed to their eight-man rotation.