NBA Power Rankings: Bucks, Suns hold on to top spots while Cavaliers climb


This early in the season there are always a lot of wild swings in the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings — a 3-game winning or losing streak can change everything fast this early. However, we’ve got stability at the top this week with the Bucks and Suns staying put.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (6-0, Last week No.1). If you and I know what Giannis Antetokounmpo wants to do when he gets the ball — and we do, we’ve seen him rolling downhill — then you can be sure opponents know and game plan for it. Yet, Antetokounmpo is shooting a ridiculous 64.8% so far this season on two-point attempts — it’s one thing to know what is coming and another to stop the best player in the world from doing it. The Bucks are the only undefeated team left in the NBA, and they are doing it without their second-best player (Khris Middleton is still likely a couple of weeks away following wrist surgery). Fun matchup of two of the biggest teams in the league Friday when Milwaukee travels to Minnesota.

Suns small icon 2. Suns (6-1, LW 2). The Suns moved Cameron Johnson into the starting lineup this season — and were going to do so whether Jae Crowder was there or not — because they wanted his shooting and the offensive bump it provided with the starters. So far it’s working, the Suns starting five — Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Johnson and Deandre Ayton — has a 122.1 offensive rating. Sub Bismack Biyombo in for Ayton and that jumps to 129.8 (both lineups have played 62 minutes so far this season). Johnson’s shooting was on full display Tuesday night when he dropped 29 on the Timberwolves.

Cavaliers small icon 3. Cavaliers (5-1, LW 7). While Donovan Mitchell and his better-than-advertised play — 32.2 points and 7.3 assists per game — has been grabbing the headlines, the Cavaliers are off to a fast start thanks to the third-best defense in the NBA this season. The critical thing in Cleveland: None of this is a fluke. Mitchell can keep scoring like this (plus Darius Garland is back from his eye injury and can help) and they can keep defending like this. Also, it’s been a week, but let us not forget what Jarrett Allen did to Bol Bol.

Blazers small icon 4. Trail Blazers (5-1, LW 5). The fast start that has everyone around the league talking is in jeopardy because the Blazers will be without Damian Lillard for a couple of weeks due to a calf strain. We saw how Miami ran all over Portland with Lillard out (those two teams play again next week), the Blazers’ defense needs to tighten up with the Grizzlies then two against the Suns coming up. It’s going to be a long road, but the early returns on Shaedon Sharpe look promising.

Pelicans small icon 5. Pelicans (4-2, LW 6). Zion Williamson is still an elite scorer inside the paint, but what has impressed this season — especially since Brandon Ingram went out — is his passing. He is seeing the floor and finding the open man, and GM David Griffin has done a good job surrounding him with shooters. “I would say before, I think I would rush it sometimes trying to see open pass. But now I just let it develop,” the more patient Zion said after a seven-assist game against the Clippers last Sunday.

Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (4-2, LW 3). While there have been flashes of the defense finding its footing — the win over the Wizards being the best example — it is still the offense carrying this team. And Jayson Tatum is carrying the offense. Tatum is scoring 30.8 points per game, shooting 66.7% on twos and 40.8% beyond the arc. A couple of good tests for the Boston defense this week, the Cavaliers on Wednesday and in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks on the weekend.

Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (6-2, LW 8). If you thought Utah’s fast start was just an aberration that would quickly fade (this is all about Victor Wembanyama, right?), note that they just took two games from the Memphis Grizzlies (Ja Morant missed the first but played in the second). Utah is 4-1 in clutch games (within five points in the final five minutes) with a +23.1 net rating in those minutes. The Jazz have legitimate talent on this roster, Lauri Markkanen has found a comfort zone, and there is no reason this team can’t be good — not 6-2 good, but good — all season long. Unless Danny Ainge breaks them up.

Raptors small icon 8. Raptors (4-3, LW 12). Pascal Siakam continues to put up All-NBA numbers to start the season: 26.1 points and 7.4 rebounds a night (he did make the All-NBA team last season, but this feels like a step forward. Toronto’s weakness is shots inside the arc — the Raptors are shooting 49.7% on twos, one of just four teams below 50% on that stat. Good to see Chris Boucher back in the rotation, which should take some pressure off Christian Koloko.

Grizzlies small icon 9. Grizzlies (4-3, LW 4). The story remains the same in Memphis: An elite offense that gets into the paint seemingly at will behind Ja Morant, but a worst-in-the-league defense (by numbers) that can’t get stops and help them win games consistently. The Grizzlies won games without Morant last season, but the one game he missed this season the Jazz picked up the win. After a road-heavy start to the season (including Wednesday night in Portland), the Grizzlies are home for 4-of-5.

Sixers small icon 10. 76ers (4-4, LW 20). Philadelphia has strung together three wins in a row, but a couple of underlying stats still are cause for concern. First, the 76ers have the worst transition defense in the league, teams have a 142.9 offensive rating when they run against Philly. With the defense struggling, it wasn’t a surprise Doc Rivers turned to Matisse Thybulle (he should have done it sooner), with the wing getting 22 minutes in the Sixers win over the Raptors. Second, Joel Embiid is a distant third on this team in touches per game. He’s their best player, get him the rock more often.

Mavericks small icon 11. Mavericks (3-3, LW 19). Luka Doncic is carrying the offense — and we don’t just mean the league-leading 36.7 points per game. Doncic also leads the league in usage rate (possessions that end with his shot/assist/turnover) at 40.9 — that would rank second all-time if he keeps it up for the season (to Russell Westbrook‘s 2017 MVP/triple-double season at 41.7). Doncic is averaging 91.8 touches per game, fifth most in the NBA this season. If the Mavericks are going to make an early-season push, now is the time with 8-of-10 coming up at home.

12. Timberwolves (4-4, LW 11). The fit of the Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns lineups is a work in progress, the Timberwolves have a -2.4 net rating when both are on the court this season. The challenge has been on the offensive end, where Minnesota is 24th in the league (they are top 10 in defense thanks to Gobert). The Timberwolves went an unimpressive 4-3 through a soft start to the schedule, and the loss to the Suns Tuesday as the start of a run of tough games. Next up is the Bucks.

Spurs small icon 13. Spurs (5-2, LW 16). The record is a little deceiving, the Spurs have a -0.2 net rating on the season (-2.2 once garbage time is filtered out by Cleaning the Glass) but have gotten some fortunate wins so far. The Spurs’ offense has been good behind the 23.9 points per game of Keldon Johnson (he is impressive with the ball in his hands), but San Antonio remains bottom 10 in defense, which will drive Gregg Popovich mad. The Josh Primo situation is unusual and unfortunate for the Spurs, but they did the right thing for the culture of the franchise (and, hopefully, Primo).

Knicks small icon 14. Knicks (3-3, LW 13). Watching New York summer target Donovan Mitchell seemingly score at will and drop 38 with 12 assists on the Knicks was a haunting night-before-Halloween experience for Knicks fans. So far this season the Knicks are what we thought they were: the offense looks better with Jalen Brunson running the show, the defense is solid if middle-of-the-pack, they beat the teams they were supposed to and struggled with the Bucks and Cavs. If the Knicks are going to beat the Hawks and 76ers this week, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett need to hit some jump shots to open the offense up.

Hawks small icon 15. Hawks (4-3, LW 15). Dejounte Murray has found a nice offensive groove next to Trae Young, but he was brought in to be part of an improved defense and that has yet to happen. We’re a couple of weeks into the season the Hawks are still 25th in the league on that end (very similar to last season). Atlanta struggled last week when the schedule got tougher (Raptors and Bucks) and things do not get easier now with the Knicks, Pelicans and Bucks as the next three.

Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (4-3, LW 21). The hope of Michael Malone and Nuggets fans heading into the season was the improved health and depth of this team would take some of the load off Nikola Jokic. Not so much. He leads the league in touches per game, and the Nuggets have a +7.3 net rating when he is on the court and a -21.8 rating when he is sitting. The Denver bench has to get better if the Nuggets want to be any kind of threat in the West. A home and home against the Spurs going up, the kind of games the Nuggets need to win if they want to move up the standings (and these NBA Power Rankings).

Bulls small icon 17. Bulls (4-4, LW 17). Zach LaVine was the fourth-quarter hero against the Nets, outscoring Brooklyn 20-19 in the final frame all by himself, exposing the Nets’ defense. The Bulls’ offense needed that shot in the arm, they miss Lonzo Ball and the 3-point shooting he brings, but they are moving the ball and getting shots. That will be put to the text, that game against Brooklyn was the first of five games in seven nights, with stops against the Celtics and Raptors in that mix. We’ll know more about the Bulls when this stretch of games is over.

Warriors small icon 18. Warriors (3-5, LW 9). The Warriors have started 0-3 on their five-game road trip, and after the success Miami had playing zone against Golden State Tuesday, the Warriors can expect to see a lot more of that defense coming up. Hopefully we don’t see any more Klay Thompson ejections like we did when Devin Booker got under his skin. There’s no one place to put the blame for the Warriors’ slow start, they are below league average in offense (16th) and defense (20th), and outside of Stephen Curry everyone’s play seems to be up and down. Eventually the Warriors will bring more urgency to the table.

Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (4-3, LW 26). It’s just six games into the season, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is putting up All-NBA numbers so far: 31.5 points per game with 6.8 assists a night on 51.8% shooting. It’s impressive he’s doing that efficiently on what is still a bottom-10 defense despite his play. The Thunder beat the Clippers twice this week, then beat the Mavericks and had Luka Doncic calling Lu Dort one of the best defenders in the league. Oklahoma City has a top-five defense, but that will be tested against Denver and Milwaukee this week.

Wizards small icon 20. Wizards (3-4, LW 10). Concerning stats of the week: Bradley Beal is averaging just 20.7 points per game and hitting just 31.3% from beyond the arc, all while dealing with a sore back. The good news, he’s knocking down shots inside the arc and getting to the line, but the Wizards’ bottom-10 offense needs more Beal (Kristaps Porzingis has tried to take on more with limited success). Losing Delon Wright to a strained hamstring for a couple of months is a blow to the defense — Washington’s D has been 6.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor to start the season.

Heat small icon 21. Heat (3-5, LW 22). The 3-point floodgates opened for the Heat against the Warriors Tuesday, with Duncan Robinson and Max Strus lighting up the scoreboard from deep (which opened lanes for Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo to make plays in the paint). Now the question is can the Heat carry that momentum into a softer part of the schedule the next couple of weeks, bet back north of .500 and build some momentum into the rest of the season? Tyler Herro is not expected to miss much, if any, time with his eye injury.

Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (3-4, LW 14). Dennis Smith Jr. is one of the feel good stories of the young NBA season. He went from forgotten and almost out of the league to making the Hornets, to starting by necessity and playing well — 12.3 points and 6.4 assists per game, shooting 44.4% from 3. LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier remain out right now due to injuries, which means more Smith in the short term. The Hornets have dropped three of their last four and have a tough week ahead with Chicago, Memphis and Brooklyn next up.

Pacers small icon 23. Pacers (3-5, LW 25). The Pacers have their backcourt of the future: Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin are combining for 42.3 points and 11.5 assists a game so far, and when they share the court the Pacers have a +8.6 net rating. Myles Turner made headlines saying the Lakers should take a long look at trading for him, but he didn’t change any minds in the Los Angeles front office — they did take a long look at him this summer and decided to hold onto their picks, a trade this early in the season would reek of desperation.

Clippers small icon24. Clippers (3-4, LW 18). The Clippers have the second-worst offense in the NBA as they try to figure out how to balance the ball movement and 3-point shooting of last season with the isolation-heavy preferences of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Nicholas Batum and coach Tyronne Lue have said it will take the Clippers a couple of months to get used to the rotations and Leonard being in and out of the lineup day-to-day (more out than in of late, but Lue says he is doing “better”). George is playing, which is good they need his game-winners.

Kings small icon 25. Kings (2-4, LW 27). De'Aaron Fox will be out for a few games (at least) with a bone bruise in his knee, but considering how things looked for a while that is not a bad outcome. Look for a lot more Davion Mitchell for a few games. Coach Mike Brown not being able to fix the defense shouldn’t be a shock, not with Sabonis at center, but the fact the offense is bottom half of the league is a little surprising (and will hold this team back from their play-in/playoff quest).

Nets small icon 26. Nets (2-6, LW 23). Steve Nash is out as coach and it’s a classic case of him not creating the problems on the Nets roster, but him not being able to fix them, either. The question is, can any coach fix them? If Ben Simmons is afraid of getting fouled and hesitant because of it, if Kyrie Irving is being Kyrie Irving off the court, if the Nets are undersized defending in the paint, what exactly is Ime Udonka or anyone going to do to fix it? Kevin Durant is playing at an MVP level and carrying this team, but the man needs more help.

Lakers small icon 27. Lakers 1-5, LW 18). The biggest concern in the Santa-length list of concerns for Lakers fans right now: Anthony Davis‘ back is clearly bothering him. You can see him grabbing at it in games, and one scout told me he isn’t moving like peak Davis. This is the guy Darvin Ham said he needs to anchor both ends of the court to build a winner. The Lakers have moved Russell Westbrook to the bench for now, but we’ll see how long that can continue without being a distraction.

Magic small icon 28. Magic 1-7, LW 30). Bol Bol is just fun right now. Given a chance due to injuries, he has has found a role with this team, coming off the bench for 21 minutes a night as a backup center, averaging 11.1 points a game. He can blocks some shots and get some boards on defense, but the real fun is when Bol Bol gets the board and decides to bring it up himself and make a play. Orlando isn’t a very good team but they are an entertaining one.

Pistons small icon 29. Pistons (2-6, LW 24). There are encouraging signs of late, not only beating the Warriors but then putting a scare into the best team in the NBA to start the season, the Bucks. Also encouraging, rookie Jaden Ivey had 34 points in those two games against the NBA’s elite and has scored in double-digits every game. The Pistons locked up Bojan Bogdanovic and now there are doubts around the league the Pistons will flip him at the deadline (they still can if they want). If Detroit is in the mix to chase a play-in spot come January, Bogdanovic may spend the full season in Detroit.

Rockets small icon 30. Rockets (1-7, LW 29). For a team with some dynamic athletes such as Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr., it’s strange to see the Rockets with the third-worst offense in the NBA this season. Shooting is an issue, but that’s part of the development plan in Houston, they are going to take their time. The Rockets are 0-6 on the road this season and after a home game against the Clippers on Wednesday five of their next six are back out on the road, with some tough games like the Pelicans and Mavericks in that mix. It’s going to be a long season in Houston.

Kyrie Irving reportedly reaches out to LeBron about joining Mavericks… good luck with that

Celebrities At The Los Angeles Lakers Game
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The NBA’s silly season started during the NBA Finals.

Kyrie Irving has reached out to LeBron James about coming to Dallas and has pushed the Mavericks into looking to acquire LeBron via trade, according to reports from Shams Charania of The Athletic and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report/TNT.

There is no shortage of rumors around the league about Irving and LeBron appearing to warm to the idea of playing together again. That was fueled by Irving being courtside at multiple Lakers playoff games.

There are so many problems with and obstacles to this LeBron in Dallas idea I’ll need to go to bullet points to break them down.

• This was either a tactical leak from the Irving camp to try and make this happen, or, it was a tactical leak by LeBron and Irving to put pressure on the Lakers to bring Irving to Los Angeles this summer. I’m not going to pretend to know Charania’s and Haynes’ sources, but nobody else benefits from this coordinated leak. If it did come from the Irving camp in any way, that’s pretty rich considering days ago he scolded anyone listening to sources and not what he says.

• The Lakers, for their part, are focused on running it back with players such as Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura and have shown limited if any interest in pursuing a sign-and-trade to land Irving. Dallas has no interest in a sign-and-trade that brings them D'Angelo Russell back. The Lakers bringing in Irving remains an incredible long shot.

• LeBron was not trade eligible at the last trade deadline after signing an off-season extension. Maybe the report was intended to mean Dallas was going to make an offer for a LeBron trade this offseason (before the Lakers run to the Western Conference Finals), but the Lakers could not have traded LeBron at the deadline, even if he wanted it.

• Making a LeBron to Dallas trade come together under the much harsher terms for big spending teams in the new CBA is next to impossible, something Haynes talks about in his story. Luka Dončić is already on the books for $40 million next season, and LeBron will make $46.9 million (plus he has a $50.6 million player option for 2024-25). If you pair those two and pay Irving anywhere near the salary he wants, the Mavericks would be right up against the salary cap with no way to fill out the roster except for minimum contracts. Wasn’t LeBron just on a team that gutted its depth for a third star?

• Along those same lines, if the Lakers sign-and-trade for Irving to put next to LeBron and Anthony Davis, they will have no cap room to round out a contending roster and it would look like the Lakers of a couple of seasons ago, with Irving in the Russell Westbrook role.

• Haynes suggested the numbers work for Dallas if LeBron forces a buyout with the Lakers and then signs in Dallas at a reduced salary. Does anyone think LeBron would even consider that for more than a second?

• If Irving is willing to take a massive discount and play for closer to the mid-level exception things fit a little better, but Irving has shown no interest in doing that. Remember he opted in with the Nets rather than leave to play for less, then pushed for a trade when Brooklyn would not give him the extension he wanted.

• There is no motivation for the Lakers to play along with this and there is no trade the Mavericks can put together that would interest Los Angeles. Technically the numbers work if Dallas trades Davis Bertans, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Maxi Kleber to Los Angeles, but why would the Lakers even consider it? The Lakers have traded almost all their draft picks and put all their energy into building a winner around LeBron and Anthony Davis, they are not trading the guy that fills their building for three rotation players. It would not matter what or how many picks were involved.

• Does LeBron James want to leave his family in Los Angeles, and playing literally down the street from his son Bronny at USC next season, to play for the Mavericks? Especially when they have to gut the roster to get him? If this season goes sideways for the Lakers maybe he feels differently about finishing his career somewhere else, but it’s hard to see right now.

Adam Silver said he would not release the update on the Ja Morant investigation right now because he didn’t want to distract from the NBA Finals. I would have paid good money to see his face when he saw this news.

From Santa Barbara to G-League to NBA Finals star, Gabe Vincent epitomizes Heat

2023 NBA Finals - Miami Heat v Denver Nuggets
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

DENVER — Bam Adebayo had been a teammate of Gabe Vincent in the bubble and through much of the 2020-21 season (all while Vincent was on a two-way contract with the Heat), but the first time he realized just how good his teammate could be was when Adebayo had to go against him.

“Man, when he torched us in the Olympics, in the exhibition game facing Nigeria,” said Adebayo, who would go on to win gold with the USA in Tokyo. “He came out with that type of energy, that type of voracity and that type of anger. I felt like, from there, he’s one of us.”

Gabe Nnamdi — who uses that name of his ancestry when he represents Nigeria — scored a team-high 21 points against the best the USA had to offer in that exhibition game in Las Vegas when Nigeria upset Team USA. It was a breakout moment for Vincent.

That energy and veracity were back in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, when Vincent dropped a team-high 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting and 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, leading the Heat to a Game 2 victory. Vincent was the guy getting pulled onto the NBA TV set with Charles Barkley and Shaq.

Vincent’s personal arc to get to that moment may be the embodiment of a Heat player and their team culture.

“I would say that old saying that we use a lot: People severely overestimate what you can get accomplished in a day, and they grossly underestimate what you can get accomplished in a matter of months, years, when nobody is paying attention,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said to describe Vincent’s path. “And he’s the epitome of that.”

Vincent played four years of college basketball at the idyllic UC Santa Barbara, where he was a standout for the Gauchos — Big West Freshman of the Year in 2015, and two times made All-Big West teams — but he went undrafted and found himself in the G-League with the Stockton Kings. There he played for two seasons, earned the Most Improved Player award, and caught the eye of the Heat front office, who, in January 2020 signed him to a two-way deal.

Vincent’s transformation as a player was just beginning. Vincent had played up to that point as more of an undersized scoring two-guard, but the Heat had other ideas.

“He was a gunslinger, two-guard. We wanted to develop him into a combo guard, somebody that could organize us, be an irritant defensively, tough, learn how to facilitate and run a team,” Spoelstra said. “I think that’s the toughest thing to do in this league, is turn a two into a one. He openly just embraced that. Then he struggled at times with that because you’re trying to reinvent yourself. Instead of saying, This is too tough, let me be me, he’s really grown the last three years.”

“It definitely wasn’t easy,” Vincent said of the transformation of his game. “The staff was great with me, whether it was film or getting in the gym, and my teammates have been phenomenal, coaching me up, telling me to be more aggressive when I’m questioning it or trying to think, should I pass first.

“And our stars, Jimmy, Kyle, Bam, they have just been in my ear and telling me just to play, play basketball. They trust my IQ of the game, and they want me just to go out there and play hard.”

As his game transformed, the Heat signed him in August of 2021 to a two-year minimum deal. He just kept getting better and outplaying that deal.

Vincent was coming off the bench for the Heat to start the season behind Kyle Lowry, but as Vincent’s game grew and father time seemed to be winning the race with Lowry, their roles switched. In February he moved into the starting lineup and hasn’t looked back.

“I know the level of confidence that we have in him and that he has in himself to go out there and run the offense at any point in time, first through fourth quarter, maybe even overtime,” Jimmy Butler said of Vincent. “And we live with the decisions and the shots that he makes and takes, and he’s our starting PG for a reason.”

Through the playoffs, Vincent has averaged 13.9 points a game shooting 41.3% from 3, plus dishing out 3.9 assists a game. On Sunday night he was the highest-scoring player on his team in an NBA Finals game.

It’s a long journey from Isla Vista in Santa Barbara to the NBA’s biggest stage.

And it will get him paid — Vincent is an unrestricted free agent this summer who will land an eight-figure-a-year contract. That’s likely with the Heat, who want to retain him, but his playoff performance will have teams looking for two-way ball-handling guards — Orlando, San Antonio, and plenty of others — calling. Vincent will have options.

“He’s just an incredible winning player,” Spoelstra said of him. “This year, he’s been a starter for us. He’s been great. He’s off the bench, he’s been great. He’s like a lot of our guys, the competitive spirit. You get challenged like we’re getting challenged in this series, you hope it brings out the best in you. And that’s what it’s doing with him.”

Adebayo saw that potential in a Las Vegas exhibition game a couple of years ago. Now he’s glad to have Vincent on his side.

Three things to know from night Heat shoot their way to win over Nuggets


DENVER — This felt a lot like a game from the Miami series against Boston.

The Heat were raining threes, throwing the offense of the Nuggets off balance, and Denver shot itself in the foot a few times to help out. It was the recipe that got the Miami Heat to the Finals, and they repeated it in Game 2 to even the NBA Finals 1-1 heading back to Miami.

It was what we’ve come to expect from Miami this postseason. Here are three takeaways from Game 2 of the NBA Finals.

1) It’s all about the 3-pointers with the Heat

Don’t overthink this.

Multiple aspects added up to this Heat victory, including how they defended Nikola Jokić and got the Nuggets out of rhythm, how the Heat slowed the fourth quarter way down and had it played in the mud (19 possessions), and how the Nuggets did the unexpected and aided in their own demise. But it all hinges on this:

The Miami Heat shot 17-of-35 from 3 (48.6%).

This was the seventh time this postseason the Heat shot better than 45% from 3 (nine times better than 40%). The Heat also hit 9-of-10 to start the fourth quarter and turn an eight-point deficit into a Miami lead.

Miami had three games in the Boston series where they shot 50%+ from 3, and when they score like that they are nearly impossible to beat. Since the playoffs started everyone keeps saying this level of 3-point shooting is unsustainable, yet here we are, with the Heat having stolen home court advantage in the Finals as a No. 8 seed.

The Heat did a lot of other things right that made this win possible, but the Nuggets’ offense still put up a 125.6 offensive rating for the game. Miami’s offense was just better because the 3-pointers were falling.

2) The Heat were relentless, the Nuggets were arrogant

In Game 1, when the Heat made their fourth quarter run, the Nuggets settled their offense, got the ball to Nikola Jokić who got a few buckets and made a few passes to set up others. Denver stopped the run and didn’t completely unravel under pressure like Boston and Milwaukee did against the Heat pressure.

In Game 2, the relentless Heat made their run to start the fourth quarter, hitting 9-of-10 shots — Duncan Robinson had all 10 of his points in that stretch — but this time the Nuggets played like a team that thought they could flip the switch. Denver did that all night.

“Let’s talk about effort. This is NBA Finals, we are talking about effort; that’s a huge concern of mine,” a steamed 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.”

“It’s the f****** Finals, man. Our energy has to be better,” Jeff Green said more directly. “We can’t come out like we did, and we have to be better.”

Miami has been exploiting these breakdowns and coming back on teams all postseason. They are relentless in their style of play and they are not rattled by the moment.

“We faced a lot of adversity during the season,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of his team’s drive in games like this. “We handled it the right way where you are not making excuses about it, the injuries, the changes lineups. Because of all that adversity and the 57 close games that happened, due to a lot of that, it hardened us. It steeled us and we developed some grit, which is what we all want.

“We want to be able to have that privilege of having adversity and being able to overcome it. You gain strength from that.”

“It’s just part of our DNA, for one. You know, everyone on this team has battled through adversity in some manner and been knocked down and had to get back up,” said Gabe Vincent, who led the Heat with 23 points. “And for number two, we have a lot of experience in these close games. So when it comes down to the wire, we are strangely comfortable.”

We know the Heat will continue to play with this same force the entire series, the question now is how the Nuggets will respond to adversity.

3) Jokić was scoring, but Denver was not its comfort zone

.Nikola Jokić finished with 41 points on 16-of-28 shooting.

The Nuggets are now 0-3 in these playoffs when Jokić scores 40+, but 13-1 in the other games (stat via ESPN Stats and Info).

When Denver is at its best, as they were in Game 1, Jokić is conducting a symphony and the points are raining down on their opponent from every direction. In Game 2, Miami did a good job taking away the cutters, staying home on shooters and limiting Jokić to four assists. They never let the symphony get started.

Just don’t tell Spoelstra the Heat made Jokić a scorer — he quickly and aggressively shot that idea down.

“This guy is an incredible player. You know, twice in two seasons he’s been the best player on this planet. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, make him a scorer,'” Spoelstra said. “That’s not how they play. They have so many different actions that just get you compromised. We have to focus on what we do. We try to do things the hard way, and he requires you to do many things the hard way. He has our full respect.”

Maybe he wasn’t just a scorer, but the Heat made Jokić and the Nuggets starters uncomfortable all game long. The Heat had the lead through much of the first three quarters because their bench went on a run late in the first and into the second — a run that stretched out to 40-14 at its peak — that gave them a cushion.

The Nuggets won non-Jokić minutes at the start of the second quarter by +14. They also were dominating when they could push the pace after a Heat miss or steal — all game long Denver struggled with the Heat could set their defense and take away shooters, they thrived when Miami was scrambled.

To start the fourth the Heat hit their shots (9-of-10) thanks to some defensive lapses from the Nuggets, and that let Miami set its defense.

Kevin Love deserves mention here. He was back in the starting lineup for Game 2 and responded with an impressive defensive performance from a guy who, to put it politely, is not exactly known for that. He protected the rim as a help defender and helped on Jokić in timely spots.

Heat play their game — hit 3s, grind, own fourth — to even series with Nuggets


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.

“It’s just part of our DNA, for one. You know, everyone on this team has battled through adversity in some manner and been knocked down and had to get back up,” Vincent said when ask how the Heat keep having these kinds of games. “And for number two, we have a lot of experience in these close games. So when it comes down to the wire, we are strangely comfortable.”

While Heat culture makes a good story, this is ultimately about the 3-point shooting — the Heat shot better than 50% three times against the Celtics, and they have been having games like this all postseason (nine games of 40%+ from 3). 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.