The Season That Was Vs. Denver

The Denver Nuggets beat the Miami HEAT in both matchups this season, with Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon missing the February matchup that both Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro also missed. Miami has one win against Denver since the 2017-18 season. These teams have never met in the NBA Finals.

Game 1: You aren’t going to find many uglier offensive starts than the one Miami had tonight. Playing at altitude in Denver always messes with the ol’ biochemistry, but the HEAT started off 6-of-29 from the field and were fortunate to be down just four after the opening stanza thanks to eight offensive boards and six turnovers from the Nuggets – the formula that has so often juiced Miami’s field-goal attempt totals even as they struggle to find their shooting.

Strange part about that start, though, is the offense wasn’t necessarily a problem. The shooting was either going to come around or it wasn’t – and it sure did, as the HEAT came back to score 38 in the second and shoot 40 percent from three overall – but on the other side of the floor any Denver possession that didn’t end in a turnover, which was plenty because Miami is so good in that area, was ending in a pretty great opportunity. Granted, Bones Hyland kept Denver in front as the offense came around because of some deep, though open, threes, but those were the minutes the Nuggets were trying to survive without Nikola Jokic. So, even as the HEAT started scoring better, Denver put up 37 of their own in the second. But a three-point game at the break, after a solid closing run, means you get to toss the box-score and start over.

Starting the third on a 9-0 run always helps, too. As the turnovers continued to flow from Denver’s end, the defensive process picked up. More physicality. Better pickup. Better contests. Jokic remained a handful, the HEAT kept winning in the margins. When Jokic had to sit, Jimmy Butler absolutely punished the drop coverage of DeAndre Jordan, and by the time Jokic came back in the fourth Miami was playing with an eight-point lead.

Then Jokic came back and we had ourselves another clutch HEAT game in a hurry. Nobody could miss. Back and forth the lead went. Jokic one way. Tyler Herro the other. Then Jamal Murray on the way back. The HEAT’s fourth quarter offense was solid. Better than usual. It just wasn’t 39 points good, which was Denver total in the period. A 124-119 loss in the end despite Miami doing so many of the things it typically does in a win – and this was a game that would’ve felt like a bit more than just a win – but tough to overcome Jokic and Denver’s 60 percent shooting from three. Box Score

Game 2: Once again a familiar story for recent times, as the shorthanded HEAT (missing Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo, among others) took an early lead – 36-27 after a quarter – over the shorthanded Nuggets (missing Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon) thanks to early shooting, early cutting and early energy.

This time, the shooting sustained for a bit. Three threes from Gabe Vincent. Three from Max Strus. A pair – the first and second of his career – from Jamaree Bouyea. The HEAT were helping themselves in the possession game, consistently with ten more shot attempts in that box-score column as they crashed the glass and kept the mistakes down, but it was the shooting that kept pace. Denver, however, was a freight train. Their Offensive Rating of 158.5 was the highest Miami had allowed in any half of basketball over the past two seasons – at least – and the points came from everywhere as they shot 8-of-14 from three and 17-of-24 on two pointers. In that context, early lead or not, Miami being within three headed into the break was about as good an outcome as could possibly be expected.

Denver stretched things out from there thanks to their star, going up by as much as 10, but Miami’s offense just kept chugging along. It could have looked worse than 89-83 going into the fourth, too, thanks to the HEAT getting something of an eight-point swing in their favor with Jokic on the bench – two missed Denver shots at the rim on one end, a putback of an airball and a Max Strus (23 points on 20 shots) runner through contact on the other. Strus kept saving the proverbial bacon from there, hitting a fading three early in the fourth, another tough, high-speed runner off the glass and a beautiful euro-step along the baseline to keep Miami within three.

Then Jokic (27 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, no turnovers, 12-of-14 shooting) returned and the gap quickly widened back to seven, where it would stay for a bit until Strus closed it back to four with a free-throw at the 2:23 mark. Another clutch game, of course, and Miami had their chances to make it a one possession game – Denver finally closed hard on one of Strus’ drives late after running him off the line and stonewalled the shot – but the Nuggets were just too steady in the end with the ball in Jokic’s hands. Miami fell, 112-108, with Jimmy Butler adding 24 on 18 shots and Adebayo scoring 19 on 14 in their 32nd game this season decided by five points or fewer. Box Score