1. Every time the Nuggets thoughts they were about to be out, the HEAT just pulled them back in.
Clunky start for both sides, Miami getting nowhere in the halfcourt while the Nuggets missed some decent looks. But Denver started to pull away, 18-11, after a handful of threes – bound to come at some point after a rough shooting series. That’s when the HEAT hit five straight jumpers to take the lead, just as they’ve done all postseason when thing other team strung together some positive possessions. The rest of the half would play out in much the same way, one answer for another. A Miami ghost cut followed by a Denver ghost cut. A Miami post seal for a dunk followed by a Denver post seal for a dunk.
It never quite felt like the HEAT were getting consistent stops with the Jamal Murray-Nikola Jokic pick-and-roll producing good look after good look and Denver’s Offensive Rating sitting around 120 all half. Miami stayed connected, though, thanks in part to the veteran mid-range savvy of Jimmy Butler (25-7-7 on 17 shots) and Kyle Lowry, but mostly because they finally found consistent downhill traction, making as many shots (8) in the restricted area – many of them off cuts and hard drives – as they did in all of Games 2 and 3. Again Denver started to creep ahead, 54-45, just before the half. Again, Miami clawed their way back in, down four at the break with the most important half of the season coming up.
More of the same in the third. Denver opened the period on a 10-4 run and had one opportunity after another to push the lead closer to 20, but nine-straight from Kevin Love – including the HEAT’s second banked-in three of the game – kept Miami within arm’s length, down eight. Then, after a lengthy stoppage in play to correct the level of the rim following an Adebayo missed dunk, Denver ran off another short burst to take it to 13, 86-73, going into the fourth – putting Miami in the same position for the fourth consecutive game. Was it time for the press and the zone, again?
But wait, a twist. With just over nine minutes to go, Jokic picked up his fourth and fifth fouls and made his way to the bench. A snap of the fingers later, the deficit was just five and the crowd was surging. Then, in a similar moment to one from the first half of Game 3, Murray hit a difficult three to stop the run. Miami just couldn’t get over the hump with Jokic on the bench, and by the time he came back in Denver led by nine. A couple drives from Bruce Brown and a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope transition three later, the lead stretched to 14 with under two minutes to play. And that was that. Miami, with all the desperate energy you would expect, had their shot at another final-period comeback, but the Nuggets were too good, too often, taking this one, 108-95, and a 3-1 series lead headed back to Denver.
2. The story for much of this game is that with both sides playing incredible defense, each team was still finding ways to extract easy scores out of elongated possessions. Only problem was Denver was able to get more of it.
The Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll was again a problem, especially with Jokic hitting early, open threes as Murray stretched two defenders out to clear space. Outside of some random instances of Murray chasing Adebayo isolations on switches, those two players were confident and calm running their bread-and-butter no matter how much Miami’s defenders got up into the dribble and tried to contain the ball.
In the end, it was Bruce Brown, attacking off Jokic screens as the HEAT devoted pressure to the center, getting to the rim that finished things off, a few extra shots at the cup as Denver’s best players drew the defense away. Those were the points, 21 from Brown, 26 from Aaron Gordon – going 3-of-4 from three but posting up smaller players and cutting his way into points all evening – late threes from Caldwell-Pope and Jeff Green, that proved the difference. Murray struggled with his shot and Jokic (23 points on 19 shots) missed a handful he usually makes, but they manipulated the floor as they always do and this time, after an inconsistent series for many of them, Denver’s role players answered the call. Another 120 Offensive Rating for the Nuggets, but this was the case of great defense being beaten by even greater offense.
3. There isn’t much more anyone could ask of Bam Adebayo. He has the toughest assignment on the floor, banging with Jokic in the post while trying to contain Murray off screens, and has done it as well as could possibly be expected even with Jokic and Murray playing very well. He’s been asked to play every coverage – switching, blitzing, trapping, containing, dropping – but nothing has really been about the scheme in this series. Murray and Jokic are good enough and smart enough to beat any scheme. Adebayo has just never stopped playing harder than anyone on the court, covering more ground than any human being should be able to cover while staying on his feet and not giving up fouls.
People are going to look at this box score and think he had a ho-hum game, 20 points on 18 shots on top of eight turnovers, but the numbers all series have underplayed just how important he’s been – literally everything on both ends of the court. Were there some instances where he had mismatches in the post that could have ended in scores? Sure. But he was aggressive chasing those mismatches, aggressive in transition and aggressive trying to attack Jokic. In other words, he was what everyone has been asking him to be for years. Missed shots are missed shots, but Adebayo left it all on the line, and the floor. Like the rest of the team, he delivered, just not quite enough in the end.