DENVER — It was a recipe familiar to Heat fans (and one that kept Bucks and Celtics fans up at night):
The Heat hit their 3-pointers at a seemingly unsustainable rate, 17-of-35 (48.6%). They got physical on defense and mucked up the Nuggets’ offense for stretches. Nikola Jokić was a scorer (41 points) but the Heat didn’t let him get the ball moving, allowing just four assists. The Heat were relentless and took advantage of their opponents’ undisciplined plays. The Heat owned the fourth with 36 points (to the Nuggets’ 25).
It was the recipe that got Miami to the NBA Finals and it won them Game 2 in Denver, 111-108. The NBA Finals are now tied 1-1, heading to Miami for Game 3 on Wednesday.
That familiar recipe included Miami’s role players stepping up as they have all postseason. Gabe Vincent scored 23 with 4-of-6 from 3, Max Strus started hot and finished with 14 points and six assists, and Duncan Robinson came off the bench for a hot start to the fourth quarter and scored 10 points that helped change the game.
Their stars made plays too, both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo scored 21. Butler had nine assists, Adebayo nine rebounds, and both made critical defensive plays. Everyone on the Heat stepped up when they had to.
“First, It’s part of our DNA for one, everyone on this team has been knocked down, we’ve faced adversity and gotten up again,” Vincent said when ask how the Heat keep having these kinds of games. “Second, we have a lot of experience in these close games.”
While Heat culture makes a good story, this is ultimately about the 3-point shooting — the Heat shot better than 50% from 3 in three of their four wins over the Celtics, and they have been having games like this all postseason. This was a game they shot their way to a win with those 17 threes. The Heat had 11 shots in the restricted area in Game 2, half of their regular season average — they just hit their jumpers.
For the Nuggets, it was about the mental and effort lapses they avoided in Game 1 that caught them in Game 2. The Nuggets played with the arrogance of a team that believes it’s the better one in the series and can flip the switch.
“Let’s talk about effort. This is NBA Finals, we are talking about effort; that’s a huge concern of mine,” a fuming Nuggets coach Michael Malone said postgame. “You guys probably thought I was just making up some storyline after Game 1 when I said we didn’t play well. We didn’t play well. Tonight, the starting lineup to start the game, it was 10-2 Miami. Start of the third quarter, they scored 11 points in two minutes and 10 seconds. We had guys out there that were just, whether feeling sorry for themselves for not making shots or thinking they can just turn it on or off, this is not the preseason, this is not the regular season. This is the NBA Finals. That to me is really, really perplexing, disappointing.
“I asked the team, I asked them, ‘you guys tell me why they lost.’ And they knew the answer. Miami came in here and outworked us, and we were by far our least disciplined game of these 16 or 17 playoff games, whatever it is now. So many breakdowns. They exploited every one of our breakdowns and scored.”
The Heat got what they wanted from the opening tip. On offense Max Strus was hitting — 4-of-7 from 3 in the first quarter alone — but it wasn’t just him. Heat midrange shots that clanged out in Game 1 dropped through the net Sunday. More importantly, having Butler start the game defensively on Jamal Murray along with Adebayo on Jokić slowed the Nuggets’ go-to pick-and-roll. Miami got the lead all the way to 11 as they pulled the game into the mud they needed to win.
However, in the final five minutes of the quarter the Nuggets started to find their legs and their offense — all thanks to their bench.
Christian Braun made two hustling defensive plays in a row, the second turning into a Jeff Green breakaway (where Haywood Highsmith fouled him). Then a Bruce Brown 3. Then a Jeff Green 3. Then a Murray 3. Then an Aaron Gordon 3. It was a Rocky Mountain avalanche of 3-pointers and the Nuggets started to pull away.
Denver’s run stretched out to 29-8 and the Nuggets led by as many as 15. However, as the teams returned to their starting lineups, the Heat got their groove back — Strus, Gabe Vincent and Butler were all in double digits in the first half. More telling, Kevin Love (inserted into the starting lineup for Game 2) was +15 and Strus +10 as all the Heat starters were in the positive. On the other end, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was -14, highlighting a rough night that eventually led to him fouling out.
Their bench had Nuggets were up 57-51, and it helped they won the non-Jokić minutes at the start of the second quarter by 14.
The start of the second half again saw the Heat increasing their defensive pressure, doing better in transition, and doubling Jokić in a way that bothered him. This slowed the Nuggets down and had them getting into their offense late, and it was back to a slow, grinding, Heat style of game.
That kept most of the third quarter tight, but in the final minutes of the half — when Bam Adebayo went to the bench — Jokić made plays, he finished with 18 points in the third alone, and the Heat entered the fourth ahead 83-75.
Then the relentless Heat made their run, with Robinson going on a personal 7-2 streak that grows into a 13-2 Heat run that puts them up by three.
From there, the Heat did their thing — they hit threes and played intense defense. The Nuggets didn’t match that energy until they tried to flip the switch in the final couple of minutes. They almost got it, Murray had a 3 to tie the game at the buzzer that bounced off the rim.
But the Nuggets lost the game much earlier.