NBA Power Rankings: Suns, Heat remain on top, put Grizzlies as contenders, too


The very top of the NBA Power Rankings remain the same at the very top with the Suns and Heat in the top two spots, but below them is it time to move Memphis into true contender status in our minds?

Suns small icon 1. Suns (55-14, Last Week No. 1). Too often overlooked this season: Phoenix has the second-best defense in the NBA. Filter out garbage time from a couple of blowouts (as Cleaning the Glass does) and they have the best defense in the league over the last seven games. While they have quality individual defenders — Mikal Bridges gets the toughest perimeter assignment nightly, and he may get some DPOY votes because of it — the credit for this success should go to both the front office and Monty Williams. The front office gets flowers putting together a roster without many obvious defensive weak spots, and Williams for designing and getting full buy-in on a disruptive system that throws opposing offenses off-balance. It can win them a lot of playoff games.

Heat small icon 2. Heat (46-24, LW 2). Miami is still in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 record in the East, with a two-game lead over surging Milwaukee with 13 games to play, and the Heat have an easier schedule the rest of the way. However, last week saw two losses when Jimmy Butler was out and in those games combined the Heat scored less than a point per possession — and Butler sprained his ankle and had to leave Tuesday night’s win. Three games into his return, Victor Oladipo is still getting his feet under him (25% from 3) but is playing solid basketball, giving Erik Spoelstra more lineup options come the playoffs.

Grizzlies small icon 3. Grizzlies (48-22, LW 5). It’s time to stop overlooking this Memphis team as contenders. A lot of pundits (*raises hand*) dismiss the Grizzlies out of hand with the “they’re too young, they will learn the hard way about playoff basketball,” however, these Grizzlies have earned more consideration than that. Playoff wins will require more halfcourt offense than forced turnovers and transition (the easy buckets dry up against the best teams, and Memphis’ fifth-ranked offense is 23rd in halfcourt efficiency) but they are capable of doing it. gives the Grizzlies a 12% chance of making the Finals and a 5% chance of winning it all, both fourth-best in the West. That seems about right, some things will need to break Memphis’ way, but it’s possible.

Mavericks small icon 4. Mavericks (42-26, LW 6). With wins over Boston on Sunday and Utah the previous Monday, it’s time to ask what Dallas’ playoff ceiling is? Luka Doncic is playing the best ball of his young career (which is saying something), he controls the flow of the game and now has more shooting and shot creation around him with Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, plus Dorian Finney-Smith among others. Dallas can score on anyone, and they have the sixth-ranked defense in the NBA. Right now, the Mavs appear headed for a 4/5 first-round series with Utah, one that is a good matchup for Dallas but far from a pushover. Win that and it’s likely the Suns, which may be too much to ask of these Mavs. Dallas is 2-0 so far on its five-game East Coast road trip, but the next two against Brooklyn and Philadelphia will be more challenging.

Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (40-28, LW 3). Boston has the starting five and the elite defense, ad strong two-way wing play (something more valuable in the postseason) to be title contenders. What happened in their loss to Dallas over the weekend was the bench let them down, particularly Derrick White and Grant Williams. Depth will be a question come the postseason in a deep East. Boston is the No. 5 seed in the middle of a crowded top of the East (3.5 games separate 2 through 6) and they have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA, one that is road heavy. If Boston wants to climb the standings and host a playoff series, they will need big road wins like in the Golden State and Denver games this week. The Celtics also will need more of this from Jaylen Brown.

Bucks small icon 6. Bucks (43-26, LW 8). Milwaukee has won 7-of-8 with some big name wins in there (Jazz, Suns, Heat), but it continues to do it more with offense than defense. Over those eight games, the Bucks have the second-best offense in the NBA but the 12th ranked defense (behind even Philly, who starts Harden). The return of Brook Lopez to the lineup should help that, he has been back a couple of games and once things settle in he should anchor a top-10 defense again. The Bucks have that defense in them, they just haven’t been healthy and built the good habits this season. Yet. You know the Bucks’ struggles defensively this season are making Mike Budenholzer pull out what’s left of his hair.

Warriors small icon 7. Warriors (47-22, LW 10). Steve Kerr may have found his closing lineup: The three-guard combo of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole have a +37.3 net rating so far this season. That is some serious small sample size theater (Thompson hasn’t been back that long) but that trio — with Kevon Looney and Andrew Wiggins — closed out the win over the Nuggets, and it was Poole being left open late and draining a couple of big 3s. Mix in the return of Draymond Green, a lock for the fourth spot in that closing lineup, and the Warriors have a five-some that can close like a championship team.

Jazz small icon 8. Jazz (42-26, LW 9). Mike Conley scored 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting against the Bucks, breaking out of a slump that had followed him for weeks. In his last 10 games, including the Milwaukee contest, Conley averages 9.8 points a game on 32.3% shooting overall and 30.2% on 3-pointers — he has to be better than that in the postseason. He has to be the Conley from the Bucks game. Jazz fans shouldn’t worry much about the rumors of Quin Snyder leaving for San Antonio, however, they should be worried about their depth, which the Bucks exposed. If you want to win a title, Utah, Milwaukee is the bar to clear and the Jazz fell short Monday.

Nuggets small icon 9. Nuggets (41-28, LW 7). At 13 games over .500, you would think Denver is a playoff lock. However, the Nuggets need to pick up a few more wins with the Timberwolves surging and just 1.5 games back (two in the loss column). The answer to one of the two biggest questions about the Nuggets postseason should come in the next week: Jamal Murray is in Grand Rapids working out with a G-League’s Gold, how he responds physically to a couple of practices will set the tone for his return — or not — this season. There has been growing buzz we will not see him or Michael Porter Jr. until next season, but Murray is closer. Nikola Jokic‘s showdown with Joel Embiid didn’t move the MVP needle one way or the other, which means Jokic likely still has a slim lead.

Sixers small icon 10. 76ers (41-26, LW 4). The honeymoon is over. Philadelphia with James Harden and Joel Embiid can win a title, but the offense will have to overwhelm to make up for concerns about the defense — particularly the transition defense — and the bench. Those areas were exposed in losses to the Nets and Nuggets in the past week. The 76er are just a game back of the Bucks for the No. 2 seed, and Philly has the slightly easier remaining schedule, but now we get into the question of what seed you would rather be. The No. 2 seed could well face Brooklyn in the first round (the current No. 8 seed, but likely to win the 7/8 play-in game if healthy), finish third and it’s likely the Cavaliers or Raptors in the first round. Would Philly rather be third? Doc Rivers said Embiid and Harden will get rest down the stretch.

11. Timberwolves (40-30, LW 11). This ranking feels low for how well the Timberwolves have played of late, especially in the wake of Karl-Anthony Towns scoring 32 in a quarter and 60 in a game Monday night. That said, blowing an 18-point lead to the Magic and missing 18-straight 3-pointers in that game can give a person pause. Even if it’s through the play-in, Minnesota is bound for the playoffs — when was the last time you could say that with certainty this late in the season — but we’ll see how good they really are starting this weekend (and they will be without Jaden McDaniels due to a sprained ankle). Here is the Wolves upcoming schedule starting Saturday: Bucks, at Mavericks, Suns, Mavericks, at Celtics, at Raptors, at Nuggets. That’s a gauntlet.

Nets small icon 12. Nets (36-33, LW 17). Kyrie Irving has just three games left with the Nets this regular season (barring a change in NYC vaccination laws). He’s taking full advantage of those games, dropping 60 on the Magic — 41 in the first half — in an unbelievable display of skill. The Nets will not escape the play-in, which will start with a win-and-you’re-in game against the Cavaliers or Raptors, and a win there means seven games with the Bucks or 76ers. After watching the scoring displays of Irving and Durant recently, there could be jockeying at the top of the conference in the final days hoping to avoid Brooklyn in the first round.

Bulls small icon 13. Bulls (41-27, LW 13). Alex Caruso is back and the Chicago defense instantly looked better against Cleveland (not so much the next game against Sacramento, but a lot of things went wrong for the Bulls in that one). The Bulls can’t afford more games like that Kings’ disaster or they will not be hosting a playoff round — the surging Celtics are just half-a-game back in the standings with 13 to play, and Chicago has the toughest renaming schedule in the league, including the Jazz and Suns on the road this week, part of 7-of-8 coming up away from sweet home, Chicago.

Raptors small icon 14. Raptors (38-30, LW 15). Winners of four straight — all on the road, including over the Suns and Nuggets — has Toronto thinking of passing Cleveland, climbing into the No. 6 seed, and avoiding the play-in. There is a strong motivation: That first play-in game would be against the Nets with Durant and Irving (lose that and it’s a one-game win-or-go-home scenario). Since the All-Star break, Scottie Barnes has averaged 19.2 points per game on 57% shooting with 8.5 rebounds a game on top of it — he is playing his best basketball and validating Masai Ujiri’s faith in him last draft.

Cavaliers small icon 15. Cavaliers (39-29, LW 12). Evan Mobley has been forced to play more pure center with Jarrett Allen out (he will not get surgery on his fractured finger and hopes to return for the playoffs) and the rookie has done well. In his last five games, Mobley has averaged 21.6 points a game on 55.6% shooting (37.5% from 3) with 10.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game. Cleveland is 3-5 in their last eight and need to find wins to hold off Toronto and avoid the play-in, but that will not be easy with Philadelphia and Denver being the next two games on the schedule.

Hawks small icon 16. Hawks (34-34 LW 16). After winning three straight, Atlanta is .500 for the first time since before Christmas. A key part of that is two of the three games in the Hawks streak have been clutch wins (within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) — winning those games was a hallmark of the Hawks last season, but this season they have a -11.5 net rating in clutch minutes (27th in the NBA) and that has been part of their missing identity. That is returning. Eight of the Hawks’ last 10 games have had clutch minutes and the Hawks are 5-3 in those games with a +12.7 net rating. Keep that kind of play up and maybe they can escape the play-in.

Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (34-35, LW 18). Charlotte looks locked into the No. 10 seed and the final play-in slot in the East. What is the path from there to the playoffs? First beating Atlanta in the 9/10 game — a likely shootout between these offenses, although Charlotte’s defense has been an improved 15th in the league over the last 15 games. Win that, then face the loser of the Brooklyn vs. Toronto/Cleveland game (probably the Raptors or Cavaliers). It’s a tall order. Having Gordon Hayward back and healthy would help, and he is reportedly “starting to ramp things up this week.” A playoff return is possible.

Clippers small icon18. Clippers (36-35, LW 14). The Clippers forming a team identity, accepting roles, playing hard, and being a tough out despite their top two stars being sidelined is one of the most underreported and underappreciated stories of this NBA season. However, looking ahead to next season, how does this Kumbaya team spirit hold up when the pecking order change Reggie Jackson has thrived in his role as a leader and clutch performer, will he be the same guy when the ball is in someone else’s hands in the final minutes? Tyronn Lue has done an amazing job as coach this season, but he’ll have a difficult — and different — task ahead of him next season.

Pelicans small icon 19. Pelicans (28-41, LW 19). New Orleans hopes of hosting a play-in game — the 9/10 matchup against the Lakers — took a hit when Brandon Ingram got injured and CJ McCollum was out at the same time due to COVID protocols. They dropped four straight. Fortunately for New Orleans, Los Angeles is not exactly lighting the world on fire either and so the Pelicans are just one game back with 14 to play, and now McCollum is back in the lineup. So we’re saying there’s a chance, especially since the Lakers have a much tougher remaining schedule (the Pels and Lakers also play each other twice in the final weeks of the season).

Spurs small icon 20. Spurs (26-43, LW 20). Gregg Popovich is officially the winningest regular season coach in NBA history. What was most impressive about the tributes that poured in was that most were not about basketball, but how Pop had made players famous and or at the end of the bench better people. As for Popovich’s replacement: Only he gets to decide when he steps aside, he has earned that right, and whoever is next will be from within the Popovich coaching tree. The Spurs are not changing who they are as an organization the second he steps away.

Knicks small icon 21. Knicks (28-40, LW 22). New York went 3-4 on a recent road trip and there have been positive signs of life with the Knicks (even if it’s too little, too late for a playoff push). RJ Barrett has made a leap in recent weeks and his getting to the rim more is a big part of that, he is attacking and not settling. Unexpected stat of the week, courtesy Fred Katz at The Athletic: Evan Fournier is just 20 3-pointers away from tying John Starks for the Knicks record of most made 3s in a season (217). Fournier is averaging three made shots from beyond the arc a game, so odds are he gets there.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (29-39, LW 23). LeBron James has looked frustrated in recent weeks, and it’s easy to see why — unless he puts up a 50 spot like he did in two-out-of-three games recently, the Lakers can’t win. Anthony Davis remains out injured but has started on-court work and says he plans to return this season. Good news for sure, although as LeBron said, Davis’ return does “not the answer to all the questions.” Since the All-Star break, Russell Westbrook averages 16.2 points a game, shooting 40.8% overall and 8.7% from 3. That’s not a typo, 8.7% over his last 10 games from beyond the arc (2.3 attempts a game). The Lakers’ lack of depth is well documented, but it has bothered LeBron more of late.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (29-38, LW 21). Signs your defense may need some serious work: In their last three games a player has scored at least 44 points on the Washington (LeBron James 50, Josh Hart 44, Stephen Curry 47). Next up is Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets. Washington is mathematically alive for the final play-in spot — four games back with 13 to play — but in reality it’s not happening. The focus has to be on keeping Kristaps Porzingis healthy and picturing him paired with a re-signed Bradley Beal next season as the cornerstone of a playoff team.

Pacers small icon 24. Pacers (23-47, LW 24). Rick Carlisle put the ball in the hands of Tyrese Haliburton and the second-year guard has put up numbers since being traded to the Pacers: 18.5 points a game, 9.4 assists, shooting 42.5% from 3. The one area of concern, his turnovers have jumped. Dramatically. His turnover percentage has climbed to to 20% (one in five possessions) and that translates to almost 4 turnovers a game. Haliburton has to clean that up before next season or Carlisle will be forced to take the ball out of the youngster’s hands.

Kings small icon 25. Kings (25-45, LW 25). Remember how a few tried to suggest the trade for Domantas Sabonis was about the Kings making the playoffs this season? Before the trade they had a -4.9 net rating. Since the trade? A -4.7 net rating (and they have gone 4-9, a slightly lower winning percentage than before the deadline). The more things change in Sacramento, the more they stay the same. On the bright side, De’Aaron Fox has played better of late, in part because he found his jump shot.

Blazers small icon 26. Trail Blazers (26-41, LW 26). This ranking may be too high for how Portland has played since the All-Star break: The offense has scored less than a point per possession and they have a -23.2 net rating that is by far the worst in the league. They have gone 1-7 in those games, with that one win being when Josh Hart dominated and out up 44 against the Wizards last weekend. Hart brings a gritty, feisty attitude to the Blazers that’s been lacking for a while.

Magic small icon 27. Magic 18-52, LW 28). Orlando has actually played good defense of late, sixth best in the NBA since the All-Star break, despite the wealth of defensive talent on their injured list. That doesn’t really matter when Kyrie Irving gets going like he did on Tuesday night. The Magic became the first team officially eliminated from the playoffs, although that was always more of a formality than anything else, we knew it was coming.

Pistons small icon 28. Pistons (18-51, LW 27). Cade Cunningham is making a push for Rookie of the Year — and has plenty of supporters on social media — but he’s not likely to catch Evan Mobley in Cleveland, or maybe even Scottie Barnes in Toronto, both of whom didn’t have slow starts to the season. An interesting game for Pistons fans to pay while watching their NCAA bracket go up in smoke (because they always do): Who would be a better fit alongside Cunningham, the unicorn Chet Holmgren of Gonzaga or the more traditional modern big in Jabari Smith down of Auburn?

Thunder small icon 29. Thunder (20-48, LW 29). Despite Shai Gilgeous-Alexander putting up some impressive stats in recent weeks, the Thunder have lost six in a row and 9-of-11 because they have the worst defense in the NBA since the All-Star break, with a 122.7 net rating in those 10 games (and going 2-8). This season was always all about developing players like Josh Giddey while making sure they had another high lottery pick this season. That plan is coming together.

Rockets small icon 30. Rockets (17-51, LW 30). Jalen Green scored a career-high 32 against the Lakers’ “defense” last week, 10 in overtime, another sign of how much his game is growing as the season moves along. He’s not in the running for Rookie of the Year and he’s likely second team All-Rookie (at best), but he’s improving and that’s all the Rockets really can ask for. It’s about player development. We will have to see if Stephen Silas survives the offseason and is coaching the Rockets again next season.

Miami has thrived in adversity all playoffs. They have plenty of it in Game 4.


MIAMI — Throughout the Heat’s playoff run, Erik Spoelstra has been confiding in and getting encouragement from another Miami coach — and it’s not Pat Riley.

Dolphins’ coach Mike McDaniel and Spoelstra have become friends.

“We’ve been texting back and forth,” Spoelstra said. “We share very similar thoughts about finding strength in adversity and using those as lessons to help you grow.”

Through that prism, the Heat have a real growth opportunity Friday night.

Miami trails Denver 2-1 in the NBA Finals heading into Game 4, and while that game is not technically must win for the Heat, it is in practice.

Getting that win means Miami finding some way to slow the Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray two-man game. Which is what every team has tried to do all playoffs long with no success, but Game 3 was the peak of their two-man game. The Nuggets stars ran 32 pick-and-rolls in Game 3, and those plays were the heart of both getting a 30+ point triple-double — the first teammates ever to have a 30+ point triple-double in any NBA game, ever. Murray and Jokić played 40 minutes together in Game 2 and the Nuggets were +14 in those minutes (in a game they won by 15).

“I mean, the Murray/Jokic two-man game is a pretty hard action to stop,” Haywood Highsmith said. “But we got great defensive players, got some of the great two-way players in this game, Jimmy [Butler] and Bam [Adebayo], so we’re gonna figure it out. We got a lot of different bodies we can throw at Murray as well.”

That might be the best adjustment the Heat can make —throw a lot of bodies at it, sell out to stop the Murray/Jokic two-man game and dare any other Nugget to beat them. Force them to diversify the offense. Denver coach Mike Malone has been able to lean into defensive lineups because Murray and Jokić provide enough offense, it’s time for the Heat to challenge that practice.

“Whatever you do, you just can’t do it all the time,” Spoelstra said of defending the Nuggets duo. “There’s no absolutes when you get to this level. It’s the highest level of competition. You’re getting the highest level of execution. Understanding what they’re trying to get to, and we try to get them out of their comfort zones as much as possible.

“The first half, they really got to that two-man action quite a bit. They were getting a lot of traction, so they didn’t need to go to any other part of their playbook.”

The Heat need to make adjustments, too.

One adjustment they will not make is playing Tyler Herro, he has been officially ruled out for Game 4. Herro went through a brief part of the fake practice/shootaround in front of the media on Thursday, but didn’t speak to the press. Spoelstra said Herro has not yet been cleared for a game, and while there were not a lot of details it didn’t sound like Herro was all that close.

Another thing the Heat need to do is less adjustment and more effort and luck — they simply have to shoot better.

Denver’s size bothered the Heat in the paint and Miami shot just 38.2% within eight feet of the basket. The Heat also got up 35 attempts from 3 but only hit 31.4% of that. Credit Denver’s size in the paint and they’re staying home with shooters for some of that, but Miami can — and Friday night must — do better.

Which brings up an interesting question: This deep into a playoff series, is it more about strategic adjustments, or effort and just playing better?

“I think it’s a little bit of both,” Highsmith said. “It’s definitely some things we can adjust on, and then it’s also about a little bit more effort and just doing more. You always need more, always can do more… we definitely have to make some adjustments on both ends of the floor, but you know, we’ll figure it out.”

Whatever Miami does defensively, Denver will score, they have an elite offense led by a two-time MVP in Jokić. If the Heat are going to even this series headed back to the Rocky Mountains, they must find more offense.

“I mean, they, they have a really good defensive scheme. They have good defensive players,” Duncan Robinson said. “You know, for us offensively, it’s going to be about creating advantages and really putting pressure on their schemes and their players to scramble and kind of get them a motion and a lot of that happens when we’re moving the ball attacking, playing to our identity.

“We had stretches last night, and definitely stretches in this series where we’ve done it. And, we’ve definitely had stretches where we haven’t gotten to that as much as we’d like to, so we’ll continue to work through it.”

They have to work through it fast because time is running out.

Bucks’ Middleton reportedly has knee scoped, should be ready for camp

2023 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Miami Heat
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

The Bucks said an MRI of Khris Middleton‘s knee just before the start of the playoffs was clean even if his play made observers question that news.

Turns out, maybe it wasn’t totally clean.

Middleton had his knee scoped after the playoffs, but he will return to his offseason training in July, reports Shams Charania and Eric Nehm of The Athletic.

The report said the surgery was to clean up “an issue that plagued him this past season,” and it was scheduled before the Bucks’ playoff run began. So, they knew, as did most anyone who watched Middleton and didn’t see the same burst as he had in the past, especially on the defensive end. He looked a step slow.

This minor surgery shouldn’t change Middleton’s or the Bucks’ off-season plans. Whatever those may be. Middleton has a $40.4 million player option, something he reportedly is considering opting out of to re-sign a longer deal with Milwaukee — or elsewhere — likely at a lower per-season salary but with more total dollars (the team may also reach an extension with him). At age 31, Middleton may want the security of years.

Milwaukee needs Middleton and his shot creation, plus his two-way play, if they are going to compete at the highest levels. However, they need the healthy Middleton who was an All-Star and All-NBA player, not the one that only played in 33 games last season due to wrist surgery and knee issues.

It will be an interesting offseason in Milwaukee with 35-year-old Brook Lopez a free agent and Jrue Holiday becoming extension eligible in the fall. The Bucks had the best record in the NBA last season, but the roster is getting old and expensive fast, and a pivot is coming. At some point. But maybe not this summer.

Nuggets’ Christian Braun on verge of history, NCAA and NBA titles in consecutive years


MIAMI — Only four players have ever done it: Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Henry Bibby and Billy Thompson.

Christian Braun could become the fifth player to win an NCAA title and an NBA championship in back-to-back seasons.

Last season he was the second-leading scorer on the Kansas Jayhawk team that won the NCAA tournament, with Braun scoring 12 points and grabbing 12 boards in the title game against North Carolina.

Braun isn’t just riding the Denver bench to his piece of history, he scored a critical 15 points in Game 3 to spark the Nuggets win. Braun scored 11 points in a stretch at the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth when Denver pushed its lead to 21, then held off the early fourth quarter charge from Miami that had defined the Finals for two games.

Braun’s cuts to the rim — not to mention his steal and dunk — were things of beauty.

“I told him, you won us the game…” Nikola Jokić said of Braun (which was generous considering Jokic’s 32-21-10 triple-double). “He won us the game, and he was really good tonight.”

“Tonight, man, I could just feel the confidence kind of oozing out of him,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “The physical, aggressive drives, making plays for guys against their zone. It was really fun to watch a young man step up like the way Christian did tonight.”

Denver drafted Braun with the No. 21 pick and it was a perfect fit for the Kansas native (who led his high school team, Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, to three state titles). Braun was drafted onto a contending team and was given a clearly defined role by Malone. Braun took that and earned his minutes with hustle and defense all season long, and sometimes the points come with that.

“Those guys make it really easy,” Braun said of playing with Jokić and Jamal Murray. “Playing with those guys, they make the right play every time. My job is just to be ready when my name is called…

“Like I said, my job is not very hard; I’ve just got to come in, play with energy, and they find me in the right spots on offense and the defense just give effort. So those guys have trusted me all year and put me in the right spots and my job is to deliver.”

Braun was ready to deliver and it showed.

If he and the Nuggets can deliver a couple more wins, he will be part of a select group in history.

Three things to know from Denver dominating both ends, taking 2-1 series lead


MIAMI — That looked like the Denver team that rolled through the West. The one that — on paper — Miami would have trouble matching up with.

The Nuggets’ best game of the Finals and maybe their best of the playoffs, was led by Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray becoming the first teammates in any game to have 30+ triple-doubles.

“By far their greatest performance as a duo in their seven years together,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

In our takeaways, we will focus on things other than Jokić and Murray’s greatness to start, but make no mistake, their dominance was the foundation on which this Nuggets win was built. Their play sparked Denver to a 109-94 win on the road to take a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals. Game 4 is Friday night in Miami.

Here are three takeaways from the Nuggets’ Game 3 win.

1) Denver’s size advantage was too much

The Heat knew it was coming and couldn’t do anything about it.

“I think that was their objective, to get in the paint, get inside and use their size and physicality,” Kyle Lowry said. “And, yeah, that’s what they did tonight.”

“They just pummeled us in the paint,” Erik Spoelstra added. “They didn’t really have to shoot threes. They had, whatever, 60 [points] in the paint. They probably shot over 65% in the paint at the rim there [69% in the restricted area]. Wasn’t a need to space the floor. We didn’t offer much resistance.”

There’s an old basketball saying that tall and good beats small and good. That was in evidence on both ends of the floor on Wednesday night in Miami.

On offense, the Nuggets’ big adjustment was they changed the screening angles for Murray and that — combined with a determination on his part to get downhill at the rim — changed the game. Behind Murray the Nuggets scored 20 of its first 24 points in the paint. As noted above, the Nuggets went on to get 60 points in the paint.

Size showed on the Nuggets defense in the Heat shooting 38.2% within eight feet of the basket. While some of that had to do with better low-man help rotations from the Nuggets, their size with the guys making those rotations flummoxed the Heat.

“Yes, you do have to credit their size and everything like that, but we have proven that we can finish in the paint when we’re at our best,” Spoelstra said. They didn’t in Game 3 and had better find a way to do it in Game 4.

2) Nuggets’ defense was dialed in

This was The Nuggets’ best defensive game of the series. But don’t take my word for it, just ask their coach, Michael Malone.

“I thought our defense was fantastic tonight,” he said. “You hold that team to 94 points, 37 [percent] from the field, only 11 threes, that really helped us out tonight. The defending and rebounding at a high level.”

As Malone noted, the Nuggets held Denver to 37% shooting, or look at it this way, they held the Heat to a 102.2 offensive rating (12.8 below their playoff average).

Or, check out this stat from The Athletic’s Law Murray: The Heat were 17-of-46 (37%) on shots outside the paint, but they were also 17-of-46 on shots in the paint.

After Malone called out the Nuggets — publicly and privately — for their mental lapses on defense in Game 2, his team came out much sharper in Game 3. That showed in a couple of places, but first and foremost with effort and activity level — Denver was much more aggressive. They were taking swipes at the ball when Miami players would catch it, never letting them get comfortable.

The other area the Nuggets cleaned up was on low-man help rotations when Jokić had to show out on a pick. The Heat have thrived on little pocket passes to Bam Adebayo in this series, but the rotations from the Nuggets took the easy buckets away on those as players got in front of him. The confidence in his back line allowed Jokić to play out a little higher at points.

It’s on Spoelstra to come up with some counters, although what Miami needs to do in Game 4 doesn’t start with the coaching staff.

3) Butler, Adebayo need to be able to hang with Jokić, Murray

Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo have to be better. It’s that simple.

They don’t have to put up matching 30-point triple-doubles, but they can’t shoot a combined 18-of-45 (40%) with seven assists. They can’t combine to shoot 10-of-30 in the paint. They have to be more efficient and come close to matching Jokić and Murray on the night to have a chance.

“We didn’t play our best tonight,” Butler said of the Heat, sitting next to Adebayo in the press conference. “I feel like we just got to come out with more energy and effort, and that’s correctible. That’s on us as a group. No X’s and O’s can fix that.”

The Heat stars got outplayed on both ends. While their shooting woes are mentioned above, they were also the primary defenders on the Murray/Jokick pick-and-roll and they didn’t stop that either. Even in the second half when the Heat started blitzing the ball handler and consistently bringing a third defender early into the action, it didn’t matter, the Nuggets made the read and the play.

I don’t know. We’re going to get back to the film and figure it out, because we do have to be better guarding both of those guys,” Butler said. “One is the ball-hander and one is the guy that is setting the screen and popping and rolling. It’s not an easy task to do, but if we want to win, we are going to have to figure it out.”

Spoelstra thinks maybe the missed shots on the offensive end got in his team’s heads and impacted Miami’s defense.

“It felt like at times, some of those missed shots at the rim or in the paint, the makeable shots that we’ve made the last several months or weeks, that affected a little bit of our, whatever, going down the other end,” Spoelstra said. “And that hasn’t happened a lot.”

In addition to those two, the Heat roll players have to hit their 3-pointers, something they did in Game 2 and did not in Game 3. Max Strus was 1-of-4 from beyond the arc, Gabe Vincent 1-of-6, and as a team Miami was 11-of-35 (31.4%). The Heat’s 3-point shooting has been their bellwether all playoffs, and if they are going to hang with this Nuggets offense they have to knock those down at a better than 40% rate.

The one bright spot for the Heat was in garbage time, Udonis Haslem, at age 43, became the oldest player to appear in an NBA Finals game ever. He deserves that. Although you know he’d trade it for a win in a heartbeat.