MIAMI — After looking flat in Game 1, the Heat got some rest, acclimated to the altitude, and looked like themselves in Game 2 — particularly in the fourth quarter. Miami had a game reminiscent of the Boston series, and when it was done the NBA Finals were tied 1-1.
Can Denver bounce back in Game 2? The Nuggets are facing adversity they have not seen yet this postseason — they were up 2-0 in every other series — and the question is how will they respond? That and how well will Miami shoot the 3-pointer?
Here are three things worth watching, plus some betting advice from Vaughn Dalzell of NBC Sports Edge.
1) Who wins the fourth quarter?
While the Heat’s 48.6% 3-point shooting in Game 2 was at the heart of their win, the question shouldn’t be can they repeat it? Of course they can. It’s why they are still playing. They have seven games this postseason shooting 45+% from 3.
However, there is one other key factor in this series: The fourth quarter.
Through two NBA Finals games, the Denver Nuggets are +29 in the first three quarters but are -21 in the fourth.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone is no fan of the trend — and he had the stats to back himself up.
“If you really want to simplify the first two games, in the first three quarters we have dominated both games. The Miami Heat are dominating the fourth quarter,” Malone said, “They’re averaging 33 points a game in the fourth quarter, shooting over 60% from the field in the fourth quarter and over 50% from three.”
Malone was just getting started.
“I’ve got a great stat: I think quarters one through three after two games, we had around 19% of our possessions were [shots] at the end of the shot clock, last seven seconds,” Malone said. “In the fourth quarter of Game 1 and 2, that jumps from 19% to 32%.
“Which means we’re taking the ball out of the net, we’re walking it up, we’re playing against the zone and we’re getting caught playing in really late-clock situations, which is hurting our offense.”
Miami’s late-game dominance goes back to the regular season, when they had the second-best net rating in the clutch of any team in the league. It has continued through the playoffs, starting with against the Bulls in the play-in — when the Heat had to come back in the fourth just to be in the playoffs, — and has been a through line to the NBA Finals.
This is not going to be a series won in blowouts, there will be more games decided in the fourth quarter and the clutch. If Denver can’t figure out the final frame starting in Game 3, they will be in trouble this series.
2) Can Heat keep Nikola Jokić from being an assist machine
The Miami Heat need to make Jokić a scorer.
Erik Spoelstra hates that phrasing and Nikola Jokić says he’s just playing the game, not thinking about it that way. Fine. We’ll put it this way:
The Heat can’t allow Jokić to become an assist machine.
Phrase it any way you wish, but if Jokić is allowed to score and dish the Heat will not be able to keep up with the Nuggets offense. Put simply, if Jokić scores 35+ points but has around five assists, the Heat have a chance to win. But if he scores around 25 points but with 10+ assists, if Denver is raining down scoring from everywhere, Miami will not be able to keep up.
The Heat plan is a lot of Bam Adebayo and to keep giving Jokić different looks.
“He can go through two or three coverages and figure it out in a matter of, up and down, up and down,” Adebayo said, nodding his head up and down. “He’s already read the game, reading the game. So the biggest thing for us is switching up the coverages and having him see different looks.”
3) It’s all about the Heat shooting
It’s simple and reductive, but it’s been true thought the playoffs and continues into the Finals: When the Heat hit their 3-pointers at a 40%+ clip, they win. It was true in Game 2, and it’s how Miami can keep pace with Denver.
Game 2 was not some shooting aberration, the Heat can keep doing this and the Nuggets know it.
“They are shooting against Milwaukee 43%. They are shooting against Boston 40-something percent,” Jokić said. “They have good shooters, and that’s why they are so deadly and dangerous, because you cannot leave them open.
“Yes, the first game Max [Strus] and Caleb [Martin] didn’t shoot well. But we know they’re going to be better. We just need to don’t give them wide-open looks. They are two great shooters that at least they need to see somebody in front of them, not just a basket.”
That was the theme from Denver — get out and contest. Make it tougher. Use the Nuggets’ length and size advantage to challenge them. The problem is the Heat have shot incredibly well on contested 3s on the night their shots are falling, and with the comfort level their role players have at home it may not matter who is in their face.
4) Vaughn Dalzell’s betting recommendations
The Miami Heat are 4-0 ATS and 3-1 ML as a home underdog in the playoffs this season, but don’t bet based off trends. Denver was 9-0 at home in the postseason until Game 2, so trends are meant to be broken. The winner of Game 3’s when the series is tied 1-1 in the NBA Finals is 32-8 historically, so play the winner of this game to win the series. Denver opens as a -2.5 point road favorite.
The Under opened at 216.5 and now 214.0 after sharps moved the line. The zig zag theory is in play here for the Under, especially considering Miami has scored 26 or fewer points in six out of eight quarters and Denver five out of eight during the Finals. After only two free-throws in Game 1 for Miami, the two teams combined to go 37-of-42 (88.1%) from the free throw line in Game 2. Expect less freebies in Game 3.
(Check out more from Dalzell and the team at NBC Sports Edge.)
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