1. For the first time in this series, the first half played out on Miami’s terms.
Figures given the change in location, but the pace and level of physicality fit exactly how the HEAT want to play. It may have cost them some whistles along the way, but that’s the price you pay for establishing an aggressive, contact-filled baseline of play. Both Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler – as aggressive early as he’s been since Milwaukee, only with Denver bringing more help than those Bucks – were getting downhill, attempting 19 first-half shots in the paint and routinely going right into the chest of Nikola Jokic. Throw in a personal 8-0 run from Caleb Martin, draining two threes and taking a steal the distance, and it looked like Miami was playing with the right tone and tempo as they attacked Denver’s weak points.
But the Nuggets were game for that style, too. With Jamal Murray going nuts (29 first-half points on 13 shots) and Jokic steady as ever, they calmly responded to each Miami run to quiet the crowd just a little. Denver still wasn’t making very many threes, with three of their four coming from Murray, but they were getting plenty (30 points) in the paint while the HEAT struggled to convert in the upper paint (4-of-12 shooting). Denver by five at the break, but given that the HEAT were below 40 percent from the field it was a margin both teams had reason to be happy with. It was anyone’s game.
Denver took that to heart, opening the third on a 6-0 run that could’ve been much worse had a couple wide-open threes fallen. We’ve seen Miami play too well down double digits all postseason to say they were in anything close to the danger zone, but being down 16 is being down 16 – and Jokic continued to look as comfortable as ever even as the Nuggets hovered sub-30 percent from deep. Only Butler’s drives, shoulders-first as he is at his best, and short jumpers kept the game within 14 going into the fourth. Just as in Games 1 and 2, Miami found themselves with ground to make up in the final period – and the expectation was to see the press and the zone once again.
The same results of the previous two fourth quarters didn’t materialize, with Denver absorbing a quick 4-0 HEAT burst to eventually go up 21 with eight minutes to play behind an energetic shift from Christian Braun, feeding off Miami committing so many extra resources to trying to slow Murray and Jokic. There was still some life left as Adebayo attacked the offensive glass, but Denver held out the ol’ stiff arm and closed things out, 109-94, to take the 2-1 series lead and even up the number of remaining possible home games. This time, the late-game magic wasn’t quite there.
2. There just weren’t any good answers for the Murray-Jokic actions – both players finishing with a triple double – and it damaged the rest of the defense as the game wore on. In the first quarter it was Murray (34 points on 22 shots), darting off Jokic screens for eight early points in the short paint and eventually 20 in the first half – with three of Denver’s four total threes. When the HEAT tried to switch that action, it left Jokic (32 points on 21 shots) with a smaller player on him that he could back down – forcing Miami to help. And when they put two on the ball with Murray, that left Jokic as the primary target in the middle of the floor with an advantage on the catch. The latter option produced a couple turnovers and staggered possessions later on, but it never felt like the answer.
Granted, few teams have had true answer for that combo, which is why Denver is in the Finals in the first place. But there’s no doubt that Murray’s early success and Jokic’ consistent greatness eventually got Miami out of all the good things they had done early to set the tone and, eventually, onto their heels.
A bit of a missed opportunity here with Denver finishing sub-30 percent from three for the second time this series. Outside of Braun’s off-ball tirade and a few duck-ins from Aaron Gordon, the rest of the Nuggets haven’t been able to get anything consistently going in this series. That may prove important going forward, but it tells you something about Murray and Jokic that Denver has held sizeable leads going in to each fourth quarter without consistent play, or shooting, from their role players. Spoelstra has made a point of saying that they aren’t going to beat that pair with coverages, that it’s about energy and execution in whatever they are doing, and tonight was as good an example of that as we’ve seen all series.
3. You couldn’t ask for much more from Butler and Adebayo (45 combined shots, 18 makes, 50 points) when it comes to aggression. Adebayo has taken everything Denver has given him – which has consistently been a decent-sized pocket in the middle of the floor – since the first minutes of this series, and Butler has followed suit since adjusting to Denver’s blend of sitting back on his actions while loading up extra bodies in his driving lanes.
The problem for Miami was that Denver’s defense cleaned up a bunch of the mistakes from the previous game, something that Michael Malone had repeatedly brought up in media sessions. Gone were most of those wide-open threes the HEAT had generated with slip screens, as Denver communicated. Gone were most of Adebayo’s easy north-south catches off actions with shooters, as the Nuggets’ low-man help was on time and on target, keeping him at 10-feet out. There were still plenty of short-to-mid two-pointers available, in large part by Denver design, with Adebayo and Butler combining to take 25 (making 12) in the upper paint and mid-range, but they finished 5-of-16 in the restricted area, with every foray met with a Nugget body. The desire and intent has been there for each player, they’re just being pushed into the zones that Denver is comfortable with – and 31 percent from three, as Denver was much more disciplined getting out to shooters, wasn’t enough to compensate.