DENVER — The ball was in Jamal Murray’s hands, usually a sign of security for the Nuggets, and Ball Arena was perspiring, Game 2 was getting late, and the fourth-quarter clock was ticking: 3 … then 2 … but not won.
Murray’s game-tying 3-point shot missed at the buzzer, and so, on a strange night at the NBA Finals, the Nuggets’ home playoff mastery exited stage left right as Miami made an entrance in this series with a 111-108 win in Sunday’s Game 2.
Here’s what, in a nutshell, the Heat did Sunday: Became the first team to win in Denver this postseason, and did so despite a mild performance from Jimmy Butler, with Caleb Martin weakened by illness and still no sign of Tyler Herro.
It was yet another pugnacious effort by the Heat, who simply outworked and outhustled the Nuggets, refused to perish after falling behind by eight points through three quarters, regained their 3-point shooting touch — making 48.6% — dominated Denver when Butler took a generous fourth-quarter rest, and of course defied all logic surrounding a No. 8 seed.
The Heat won the fourth quarter and put a boot on the Nuggets’ neck, refusing to lift their heel. They then held their breath while Murray misfired on the final shot of the night.
“They came out in that fourth quarter with a huge sense of desperation,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, “and we didn’t match that.”
So … do we have a series?
The Finals now shift to Miami for a pair of games, and if the playoffs have taught us nothing else, basketball life comes at you fast this time of year. A stroke of fortune (or misfortune), an epic performance by a star, a referee’s whistle … or a missed game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer, anything can happen to tilt a series in the favor of one team over the other.
This victory could be the boost Miami needed.
Or maybe this was a momentary stumble by the Nuggets.
Here are Five Takeaways from the Heat’s 111-108 victory, and a series that’s now tied at once apiece, and where it might be headed (other than Miami for Games 3 and 4):
1. It’s the assists, not the points
Nikola Jokic dropped 41 points on the Heat. And you’d think the Nuggets would win a game like that, with him constantly punishing Miami with finger rolls and high-arching 3-pointers. Actually, the more telling statistic from Joker was this: Four assists. Yes, four.
Miami will take that all day, anyway. The Heat’s defense closed down the passing lanes and forced him to score (he took 28 shots, 13 more than the next closest teammate, Murray). This is a center who was averaging 10.5 assists in the playoffs. And Miami was helped by Jokic’s teammates who collectively laid a bunch of eggs. When a Jokic pass did find them, they missed shots even when they weren’t covered.
The most guilty party was Michael Porter Jr. He was a ghost offensively, scoring just five points, never establishing a flow, never making the Heat pay. His 3-point shot still hasn’t made a Finals debut; Porter is 3-for-17 from that distance in this series and that inability hurt Denver on Sunday.
But it’s never just about one player. Murray (18 quiet points, one loud missed shot) never had a sizzling stretch in this game, unlike others. And Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had a tough night all around. In addition to never causing any damage offensively, he committed a handful of very silly fouls — on 3-point shooters, on reach-ins, just mind-boggling decisions — and finally fouled out. That’s six fouls, one basket, three assists for him.
You can’t make teammates better, as Jokic does, when the pass doesn’t lead to a hoop.
2. Miami’s fourth-quarter ferocity
The Heat had a pair of grand entrances in this game, one to start the game when Max Strus couldn’t miss a shot (unlike Game 1), and one to start the fourth quarter. The difference between the two is the fourth-quarter burst held up … emphatically.
“During the fourth quarter, our guys love to compete,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “They love to put themselves out there in those moments of truth.”
This is how you win games in the NBA Finals, by making a stand, keeping a foot on the gas, dropping big shots and producing big stops. What’s surprising is how the Heat did this in the fourth quarter with Butler on the bench. Butler didn’t enter the quarter until 8:03 remained. By then, the Heat were up 92-87 after being down 83-75 to start the quarter. That’s a 13-point swing without your best player.
How did they do it? Duncan Robinson took ownership of the fourth quarter. He broke open for jumpers, scored on layups, looked like a star — 10 points in a five-minute flash. Also, Gabe Vincent — sparkling all game — commanded the floor. And Miami’s defense was solid.
Oh, and this needs to be stressed: Miami has controlled both fourth quarters of this series so far. In Game 1, it made the contest closer than it should’ve been — thanks to Haywood Highsmith — and now the latest, thanks to Robinson setting the tone.
Basketball scientists and historians are probably still studying this Miami team and scratching their heads while trying to figure out how the Heat are doing this. You can start with the unsung players, quite obviously, but also Spoelstra. His adjustments and game-planning is among the best in the biz. Oh, and if Spoelstra were to win this championship? He’d be top-five all-time among coaches.
3. Still waiting for ‘The Jimmy Game’
There’s plenty for the Heat to be optimistic about. The series is tied, the next two games are in Miami (played at sea level!) and Jimmy Butler has yet to put his signature on the NBA Finals.
This isn’t to suggest Butler hasn’t been balling. He just hasn’t been ballistic.
He has yet to be the best or most impactful player on the floor through two games. Decent, just not dominating. His best stretch actually was Sunday in the fourth quarter, when he entered the game at the eight minute mark, hit a few baskets and helped Miami expand the lead. He had 21 points and, most helpful, nine assists.
Understand this: Butler is a very methodical player. He picks his spots to score. He spends most of his energy on defense and looking to pass to get teammates involved, especially early. That first-round series against the Bucks where he averaged 37.6 points per game and had back-to-back games of 56 and 42 wasn’t the real Butler. Ditto for his big-scoring nights in the bubble three years ago during Miami’s last NBA Finals run.
“I just keep playing basketball as far as I can,” he said. “Making plays for others. Score whenever I get the opportunity to do so. And through all else, just find a way to win. I just think nobody cares on our team. We’re not worried about what anybody thinks. We’re so focused in on what we do well and who we are as a group that at the end of the day, that’s what we fall back on. It’s how it’s been all year.”
But in order for Miami to win this series, which would be its fourth against a higher seed, you’d think at some point the Heat will need at least one of those Jimmy Games. Especially with Herro still on the mend and the unpredictability of Miami’s shooters (they were hot in Game 2, shooting 17-for-35 from deep after frigid Game 1).
4. Jokic puts on another show
Back to Jokic and his performance. It was pretty impressive to watch, as he carried his team, scored in a variety of ways, and did so against Bam Adebayo, one of the better defensive centers in basketball.
But get this: The Nuggets are 0-3 this postseason when Jokic scores 40 or more points. Crazy, right? He dropped 43 in the first round and lost an OT game against the Timberwolves. He erupted for 53 points on 20-for-30 shooting and lost to the Suns. And now, this.
Again, this supports the theory that his assists are the most effective part of his triple-doubles.
But there’s something that Miami must do in this series, if it can: limit the amount of time Cody Zeller is on the floor with Jokic. It has been a mismatch of the highest order. In this situation, the Nuggets immediately call the Joker’s number, and do so repeatedly, until Adebayo checks back in and Zeller is relieved of his misery.
“I trust Nikola,” said Malone. “He’s going to read the game. He’s going to read how he’s being guarded, and he’s also going to pick his spots where he knows regardless of how he’s being guarded, we need him to score and be aggressive and look to score. Whether it’s 41 points, only four assists, or it’s 25 points and 15 assists, Nikola is going to make the right read time and time again.”
5. Unbeaten no more in Denver
The Nuggets were 9-0 at home in the playoffs until Sunday. That was an impressive stretch, and taking it a bit further, the last time the Nuggets lost a home game with Jokic on the floor was March 12.
But is there really such thing as home-court advantage this deep into the NBA season? Not really. In the 2022 NBA Finals, the Warriors clinched the title in Boston. The Warriors also lost a Game 7 in Oracle Arena to the Cavs and LeBron James in 2016, and were closed out of that building in 2019 by Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors in Game 6 (yes, Kevin Durant was hurt and Klay Thompson didn’t finish that game).
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and especially in the playoffs where every game is different, every game matters, which is normal,” Jokic said.
It’s just not so simple to be so good and so perfect for so long. Everything must come to an end. The Heat had to win at least once in Denver, and they did. Miami did what the Timberwolves, Suns and Lakers failed to do, and it was far from a fluke.
“I told our guys, if we would have won this game tonight, we would have stole one,” said Malone.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.