MIAMI — The Heat are on the NBA Finals stage because they are relentless. They never quit when things got hard in the postseason, they would just up their intensity and pressure their opponent.
When they cranked up that pressure on the teams with the two best regular season records in the NBA — the Bucks and Celtics — those teams melted. Miami was left standing.
Denver will not melt. They will not beat themselves.
If anything, the Nuggets are putting the pressure back on the Heat, which is why they are up 3-1 and in command of these NBA Finals after an impressive Game 4 win. The best example was when the Nuggets withstood more than five minutes in the fourth quarter without their two-time MVP (due to foul trouble) and didn’t miss a beat.
It feels like Game 5 in Denver could be a coronation of Jokić and the Nuggets. Here are the three reasons we got to this point, with the Nuggets one win away from the franchise’s first title.
1) Miami can’t score enough to hang with Denver
The Heat were always going to have to put up a lot of points to keep pace in this series — the Nuggets had a top-five offense in the league this season led by a two-time MVP. They were not going to be shut down by anyone and had just come off having an impressive 118 offensive rating against the best defense in the NBA after the All-Star break in the Lakers. Maybe Maimi could slow Denver some, but the Heat were going to have to put up offensive numbers like they did against the Celtics.
Through four Finals games, the Miami Heat have a 109.5 offensive rating. That is 3.8 behind their unimpressive regular season offense (25th in the league) and 9.2 below what they did against Boston. Or, look at it this way: The Heat had a 129.1 in its Game 2 victory, but 102.2 in the other three games, all losses (stat via John Schuhmann at NBA.com)
The Nuggets’ length across the board is clearly bothering Heat shooters inside the paint and out at the arc.
Outside of the fourth quarter of Game 2, nothing has worked the way the Heat wanted on offense. In Game 4, the emphasis was on playing downhill and getting to the rim, maybe getting Jokić in foul trouble.
“[Coach Spoelstra] definitely made it an emphasis to attack the rim, to really get to the rim, me and Jimmy, everybody included, really get downhill and make things happen,” Bam Adebayo said of his team’s Game 4 strategy.
Miami did as its coach asked and shot 14-of-18 in the restricted area. But look at the rest of the shot chart.
That’s a lot of red.
Jimmy Butler and Adebayo have put up numbers throughout the Finals but haven’t been efficient. Game 4 was the perfect example, the Heat All-Star duo combined to score 45 points, but they shot below 50%, 17-of-36, to get there. They have not been the force they have been in other series. Butler will never blame his sore ankle, re-aggravated in Game 7 against the Celtics, but he’s not showing the same lift or explosion he did last series.
Neither of the Heat’s stars are expected to space the floor, that shooting falls to the role players, but the Heat were 8-of-25 from 3 in Game 4. Gabe Vincent and Max Strus combined to go 0-of-7 from deep.
Spoelstra has to try something in Game 5, maybe start Duncan Robinson (5-of-7 on the night, shooting 3s and attacking closeouts) over Strus. There are other tweaks he can make. But at this point it’s really as simple as the Heat need to start finishing their chances, contested or not.
“All we are going to focus on is getting this thing back to the 305,” Spoelstra said. “Get this thing back to Miami. And things can shift very quickly,” Spoelstra said. “It’s going to be a gnarly game in Denver that is built for the competitors that we have in our locker room. By the time we are getting on that plane, all we’re thinking about is get this thing back to Miami.”
2) Miami can’t stop Denver from scoring
Through four games, Miami has a 119.6 offensive rating (and a +10.1 net rating in the series). That is an offensive rating close to Sacramento’s league-best throughout this season.
What makes the Nuggets so hard for the Heat or anyone else to stop is it’s not just one thing.
However, it starts with the Jokic and Jamal Murray two-man game.
In Game 3, that duo ran 32 pick-and-rolls and the two stars each had 30+ point triple-doubles on the night. Miami learned its lesson, and in Game 4, the Heat were determined not to let Murray get rolling and beat them. The Nuggets defense focused on Murray, blitzing him with the ball when he came off picks, pressuring even the inbounds after baskets, bringing double-teams on drives and doing whatever it took to get the ball out of his hands.
It worked on a superficial level, Murray had 15 points on 5-of-17 shooting in Game 3.
He also had 12 assists and no turnovers. His teammates stepped up and made plays.
“Jamal, regardless of what’s going on, he’s going to step up. He’s going to find a way to impact the game,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “The most impressive thing for me was he had 15 points tonight, and he was 5-of-17 from the field. But 12 assists and zero turnovers, and just kind of, all right, they’re putting two on me, let me make the right play. He did not get bored with making the right play. He did not say, I’m going to save us and try to carry the team. He just read the defense, made the right play, and trusted. That’s a big part of our culture is trusting one another.”
Murray’s teammates are the other key to this series.
3) Denver’s role players outplaying Heat role players. It’s not close.
Miami had a game plan and executed it. They completely sold out to stop Murray, while Bam Adebayo continued to battle and challenge Jokić. The two Nuggets’ All-Stars combined to shoot just 13-of-36 on the night.
But Aaron Gordon stepped up with 27. Bruce Brown scored 21, including 11 in the fourth quarter, taking over the offense in the clutch.
On the other side, Heat starters Max Strus and Gabe Vincent combined to shoot 1-of-10. Caleb Martin was better in Game 4, with 11 points on 5-of-12 shooting, but he’s not looked anything near the player who nearly won the Eastern Conference Finals MVP. The list just goes on.
“Every time we felt like we got it to six or eight, they were able to push it to 12,” Spoelstra said after Game 4. “That was certainly a frustrating part of the game…
“For the most part, I thought that that part of the game [Miami’s defense on Jokić and Murray] was okay. It’s the Gordon dunks or cuts; [Michael] Porter had a couple cuts; and then Brown, when Jokic was out, those drives and plays that were kind of just random plays, attacking plays, which he is fully capable of doing. Those were probably the most costly things.”
Malone had enough trust in Brown to give him the keys to the offense in the second half of the fourth quarter of Game 4.
“Bruce Brown in the fourth quarter was amazing,” Malone said. “He had I think 21 points, 11 of those were in the fourth quarter. They were giving Jamal so much attention that [we decided] let’s get Jamal off the ball, let Bruce make some plays. He was aggressive, got to the basket, made shots, and tonight was an impressive performance.”
“When he did a step-back three, I wanted to punch him, but when he made it, I was so happy,” Jokić said.
Brown had a chance to step up because Gordon had been making plays and finishing all night long. He ended the night with a game-high 27. But it was the team aspect of the Nuggets, the variety of ways they can beat you — and the execution of those players under pressure — that has proven too much for the Heat.
“I thought Aaron Gordon was huge all night long,” Malone said. “He brought his hard hat tonight and was just a warrior on both ends for us. Nikola, he had another great game. And one of the best stats of the night was Jamal Murray had 12 assists, no turnovers. In a game where he was getting blitzed and bodies thrown at him all night long, did not have one turnover, and that’s just remarkable.
And the Nuggets are now, remarkably, within one win of an NBA title.
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