2023 NBA Finals

Heat finally meet their match against Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Miami battles Denver until the final minute of Game 5, but it isn't enough to sustain its miraculous playoff run.

Miami's historic playoff run comes to an end in Denver.

DENVER – To the victors go the spoils. Everybody knows that.

To the vanquished go the sting of failure (sorry, Giannis), the emptiness of a job left undone, a somber dressing room and bus ride and, in the immediate aftermath, a postgame interview room in which a tumbleweed rolled past an orchestra of crickets.

With the Denver Nuggets winning the first NBA championship in franchise history Monday night at Ball Arena, all the smiles and jubilation were at the other end of the hall. The Miami Heat fulfilled their media obligations in a converted storage area off the loading dock, an appropriate venue for a gritty, overachieving bunch that came up a palette or two short.

Empty chairs outnumbered interrogators 10 to 1, the home team attracting most of the attention after dispatching the Heat in five games, a series result didn’t do justice to the individual battles and especially the 94-89 rock fight that sealed Miami’s fate.

Not many people in the building, in other words, cared much about the Heat’s defeat. For those that did, though, and for those who had paid attention to the 23 games they strung together overall in the postseason, there was much to appreciate. Later if not now.

“It’s kind of one of those things where we don’t know how we are going to feel and what we are going to think right this moment,” veteran guard Kyle Lowry said. “But we’ll look back at some point and say, hey, it was a great year, great run. Right now, just can’t even think about that.”

Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry discuss the Heat's Game 5 loss to the Nuggets.

In a sampling of what Miami had done to higher-seeded and heavily-favored opponents through the playoffs’ first three rounds, the Heat went harder, more aggressively and more successfully from the start in Game 5. Facing elimination, down in a 3-1 hole, they played as if they had the Nuggets right where they wanted them. That’s the formula that worked for them again and again, after barely slipping into the playoffs at all through the AT&T Play-In Tournament side door.

They pestered Denver into five turnovers in the first quarter, five more in the second and 14 misses in 15 tries from 3-point range. They led 51-44 at the break, a veritable offensive explosion for an offense that ground to a halt in double digits four times in the five games.

By the end of three quarters, Miami had gotten up nine more shots than Denver thanks to sticky-fingered defense and the ability to generate extra shots. Lowry’s 3-pointer near the end of the third nudged the Heat ahead 71-70. All that was left, seemingly, was for struggling forward Jimmy Butler to don his “Playoff Jimmy” cape and tights and drag the whole Finals to south Florida.

Almost happened, too. Butler scored 13 points, hit a pair of 3-pointers and got himself to the line to go 5-for-5 in the fourth. But it was too little, too late from him — Butler had been dormant with just eight points on 2-of-10 shooting through three quarters — and in the most clutch moments, he didn’t produce.

I think this is one of my favorite teams I’ve ever been a part of because we willed our way through ups and downs. We willed our way through the things that people said we couldn’t do.”

— Heat center Bam Adebayo

The Heat trailed 90-89 when Butler found himself trapped in the lane and, rather than call a timeout, he forced a pass right into the hands of Denver’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Pope raced downcourt, got fouled and hit both free throws.

After a timeout, Butler heaved a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left — too early, too force and too reminiscent of the Game 7 shot he hurried against Boston in Game 7 of last year’s East finals. It banged off the rim, forcing Miami to foul Bruce Brown for the final points.

Then it was Lowry getting up the last shot of Miami’s season, this one missing too as the mile-high celebration began.

“Those last three or four minutes felt like a scene out of a movie,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Two teams in the center of the ring throwing haymaker after haymaker, and it’s not necessarily shot-making. It’s the efforts. Guys were staggering around because both teams were playing and competing so hard. That’s what this league should be about.

“There’s no regrets on our end. There’s just sometimes where you get beat, you know, and Denver was the better basketball team in this series. It will probably rank as our hardest, competitive, most active defensive game of the season. And it still fell short.”

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra talks after the team's loss to the Nuggets in Game 5.

This backs-to-the-wall Heat team managed only 38 points in their final 24 minutes before summer. They shot 34.4% in Game 5 and 40.6% in the series. They got outscored by 41 points in the five games, outrebounded by 44, and in historical terms are now 3-4 in the seven Finals in which they’ve participated.

The details of the Heat’s exit, however, don’t do justice to what they accomplished. They never got much traction in the regular season, coped with injuries, searched for offense and reached the end in seventh place. Miami lost its Play-In game with Atlanta to slip another spot and barely survived against Chicago just to qualify.

As self-imposed as its underdog status was at that point, Miami got serious in a hurry. It ousted Milwaukee in five games, then beat New York in six and there were plenty of solid reasons beyond Giannis Antetokounmpo’s and Julius Randle’s injuries.

The Heat rattled Boston, the No. 2 seed, by grabbing the first two games of the East finals on the Celtics’ home court, setting up a blowout victory in Miami to go up 3-0. The subsequent three consecutive losses that followed weren’t fun, but they seemed to demonstrate that front-running was not a thing for this squad. Boston’s Jayson Tatum got hurt at the start of Game 7, sure, but Miami dominated that pressure evening in every other way.

“I think this is one of my favorite teams I’ve ever been a part of,” center Bam Adebayo said, “because we willed our way through ups and downs. We willed our way through the things that people said we couldn’t do.”

Miami crashed party after party this postseason, only failing to foul the Nuggets’ punch bowl at the end.

“Whenever we go through adversity,” Adebayo said, “I’m always going to look back and be like, ‘We’ve been through adversity before.’ Having the eight seed in the Finals isn’t normal. It isn’t easy. People think it depends on what seeding you are [for] how good you’re going to be. To me, that’s bull, and obviously this season showed different.”

The saga of the 2022-23 Heat – with its roster heavy with undrafted players and others from humble beginnings – is assured, such that even a rapid end against Denver won’t alter it. Whatever vaunted “culture” led to it and whatever achievements or disappointments follow, fans and skeptics can debate.

There’s no regrets on our end. … It will probably rank as our hardest, competitive, most active defensive game of the season. And it still fell short.”

— Heat coach Erik Spoelstra

But there was something here for many other NBA teams and, frankly, for a lot of fans.

“This is a team that a lot of people can relate to,” Spoelstra said. “If you ever felt that you were dismissed or felt that you were made to feel less than. We had a lot of people in our locker room that probably have had that, and there’s probably a lot of people out there, you know, that have felt that at some time or another.

“Also the way this team handled setbacks and adversity, to develop a collective grit and perseverance. Hopefully these are lessons that will transcend this beautiful game. That hopefully these are lessons that we can pass along to our children.

“That even though it is sport, that you can learn lessons of life from this game. That you can persevere. That you can handle what people may view as mini-failures along the way and become stronger from it and to be able to overcome things and find beautiful things on the other side of that.”

Not all dreams come true, for resilient teams like the Heat or for the strivers who only buy tickets or watch from home. That’s part of this saga too.

“There’s no regret from our side,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody, staff, player alike in the locker room put themselves out there and put themselves into whatever was best for the team.

“And the tough pill to swallow is it just wasn’t good enough. We ran up against a team that was just better than us in this series.”

The Nuggets are ennobled by the foe they beat.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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