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.