1. Miami couldn’t have asked for a better start.
They were playing with pace. They were turning Denver over. They were inducing defensive miscommunications and Max Strus was hot from three. For the first time in the series, it felt like the HEAT were in control. And yet, as good as everything looked, they led by only three after the opening period. They hadn’t taken a single shot in the restricted area.
Denver almost always gives Nikola Jokic a rest at the beginning of the second quarter and their bench tends to leak points. That wasn’t the case tonight. With Miami zoning Denver’s second unit, Denver hit three after three after three, using a ton of ball pressure to jam up the HEAT’s perimeter actions and get out into transition – all of it adding up to a 21-6 run to open the second quarter, eventually leading by as much as 15. The only thing keeping the HEAT close was that they continued to hit nearly half their threes. But just as they did in Game 1, Miami mitigated the damage. It took a lot of mid-range work – Gabe Vincent was 5-of-7 in the half – with precious little going towards the rim but being down just six at the break was a best-case scenario given Denver’s extended run.
Good thing Miami was doing that thing again, that thing they’ve done more than all but one team in the entire history of the league in a single postseason run – hit half of their three-point attempts. Opening the third period with three hits from deep, two from Vincent, Miami was already back within two. Soon enough, tied. Denver’s offense just kept plugging along, as they do, though the HEAT got some mileage out of helping on Jokic during this stretch, forcing under-duress passes – and a turnover or two – even as Jokic found the open man. That didn’t last long. Back to Denver by eight headed into the fourth as Miami could not afford to give Bam Adebayo (21 points on 14 shots, +17) even a minute of rest. Still within striking distance, but the threes would need to be there given the lack of action at the rim.
Sure enough, Duncan Robinson opened the fourth with a three, and next time he touched the ball Denver so overplayed in he jogged to the rim for a layup – followed by another three off his own missed free-throw. Deficit back to two. Another Vincent corner three, a 13-2 run to open the quarter, and Miami jumped out in front. Where it looked like they would stay, shots continuing to fall in bunches and Denver’s defense unraveling as a result – leading to the downhill lanes finally opening up. But the Nuggets had one last push in them, going from down 11 to just three in the final minutes. In the end, it was a Jamal Murray stepback three bouncing off the rim, 111-108 as the HEAT tie the series up headed home.
2. It’s the shooting. It’s always the shooting with this team. At multiple times in this one it looked like their opponent was going to pull away, only for the HEAT to drain a couple of threes to stay right in it. Sound familiar? Milwaukee and Boston sure could relate.
Early it was Max Strus, hitting four. There was Gabe Vincent (+22), pulling up off the bounce and hitting 4-of-6 from deep. In that fateful fourth quarter, though, it was Duncan Robinson (10 points on five shots) bringing Miami back from the brink, his deep hits not only putting Miami back out in front but eventually causing multiple Denver overreactions in handoff coverage to create opportunities in the paint.
Miami came one miss away, at 17-of-35, from becoming the first team in league history to post five games in a single postseason over 50 percent from three on at least 25 attempts. That is remarkable, incredible stuff, and it doesn’t stop being that way even if they keep doing it. Denver still posted an Offensive Rating of 125.6 themselves, so it wasn’t as though the Nuggets were stopped (though slowed they were for much of the fourth). Miami just proved they could out-score the best offensive team in the league.
On this subject, it’s especially noteworthy that even with their late flurry, Denver only attempted 28 threes, making 11. A partial byproduct of Jokic taking 28 shots (on his way to 41 points).
3. This is turning into something similar to the Milwaukee series for Miami, just with a totally different look at feel. As with the Bucks, Denver is dropping their size back and conceding some space in the mid-range. As with the Bucks, you’re simply going to have to hit some jumpers to beat that coverage.
But the Nuggets haven’t been nearly as passive. Where Milwaukee relied on the percentages, and generally just tried to stay in front of the ball, Denver is applying pressure on the ball while keeping size in the paint and help at the ready. When the HEAT tried to go to the Duncan Robinson-Bam Adebayo two-man game in the second quarter, Denver turned up the pressure even more and disrupted the rhythm of what is typically a bread-and-butter action. Not only was Miami not getting much going to the rim – their first restricted area attempt came well into the second quarter, and headed into the fourth they were only 3-of-7 in that range – the Nuggets were speeding them up, which is tough to do for a team that likes to execute in third gear or above.
The threes were obviously there, but the way Denver is playing they’re going to have to be there. The paint only opened up – Miami still took only 10 shots in the restricted area – late down the stretch because the outside shots were falling.