It took 10 tries, but an opposing team finally made it to the top of the mile-high mountain.
After nine games and more than three postseason rounds heading into Game 2 of Sunday’s Finals, the Nuggets hadn’t lost a playoff game in Denver. Like the no. 1 seed in the West, they had used their home court advantage – the best in the sport – to take a series lead against the Timberwolves, Suns and Lakers, and they had won the first game against the Heat. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray and all the Nuggets role players are special, but Denver’s altitude was their unique extra advantage in this playoff.
But if any team had to overcome that inconvenience, well, of course, it would be the Miami Heat, who had already cleared so many outrageous hurdles this spring. The eighth-seeded Heat upset the Eastern number. 1 and no. 2 seeds, winning both series on the road; of course, they wouldn’t be discouraged from competing in Denver.
“If Denver wants to give a tip on Mount Everest, we will,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. said before the start of the series.
And in Game 2, his team backed up that bravado with Denver’s first road victory in all of the playoffs. The Heat rallied from a 15-point deficit in the second quarter and an eight-point deficit in the fourth to steal a 111-108 win. Now the Finals returns to Miami tied at one game apiece, and more importantly, the 1-on-8 Finals are a truly competitive series.
With two days off between almost every game in the Finals (only Games 3 and 4 are separated by a single day), Spoelstra and Michael Malone have plenty of opportunities to react and adapt to each other’s strategies. Spoelstra’s fiddling before Game 2 was most apparent on the defensive end, where the Heat took a much more physical approach and held the non-Jokic Nuggets in check.
This adjustment meant that Jokic, naturally, scored more points in game 2: 41, compared to 27 in game 1. Yet the triple-double artist collected only four assists in game 2 after getting 14 in Game 1. For most of the night, his scoring was a solo effort—until midway through the fourth quarter, none of his teammates had even cleared 10 points in the game.
Jamal Murray finished with 18, courtesy of some 3-pointers behind, but he didn’t have nearly the same impact as in Game 1, when he had 26 points and 10 assists. In Game 2, Butler defended Murray a lot more – thanks to Spoelstra’s decision to bring Kevin Love back into the starting lineup, which allowed Love to keep Aaron Gordon and allowed Butler to move on to the more dangerous Murray.
Love had gone from starting lineup to rotation in the Eastern Conference Finals because the slowest big man couldn’t stay in front of Boston’s perimeter creators. But playoff rotations are all about matchups, and Love can keep Gordon with more volume than his smaller Heat teammates. His presence helped diminish the size advantage that Denver had wielded to such great effect in Game 1; the Heat were plus-18 in 22 minutes from Love on Sunday.
Even with that adjustment, the Nuggets scored in a prolific clip in Game 2; their 126 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, were above their overall playoff average and well above their efficiency in Game 1. But the Heat hit back in kind as Spoelstra applied the crucial “make more shots” adjustment after the Heat sank just 33% of their 3-point attempts in their Game 1 loss. (And even that number overestimates Miami’s shooting impact in Game 1; a number of its marks came when the game was already out of control in the fourth quarter.)
In Game 2, the Heat made 17 of 35 3-point attempts, good for a 49% mark. Now six of the 11 best single-game 3-point percentages in the playoffs belong to Miami, which, it bears repeating for the umpteenth time, finished a distant 27th in 3-point percentage in the regular season and is now missing its top shooter (Tyler Herro) due to injury. The Heat are 6-0 in those games.
Highest single-game 3-point percentages this postseason
Part of Miami’s offensive success in Game 2 stemmed from a return to form after an aberrant first game in the Finals. Most notably, Max Strus had goose-egged in Game 1, missing all of his 10 shot attempts (nine from deep), but he rebounded with four 3-point marks in the first quarter of Game 2.
Strus didn’t hit another 3 the rest of the night, but his hot start presaged a powerful night from deep for the rest of Miami’s roster. Love and Butler each hit a pair of 3s. So did Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson off the bench. Gabe Vincent, en route to a big paycheck in free agency this summer, canned four 3s and led the Heat with 23 points.
Thus, the profitable Miami role player roulette game continues. Caleb Martin was a hero in the Eastern Conference Finals; he has six points in two Finals games while returning to the bench, but other role players have taken his place.
The Nuggets also paved the way for more Heat points with defensive incidents, which led to a few wide-open marks. Simultaneously blame Denver defenders for miscommunication and credit Miami’s offensive system for creating confusion. Particularly representative magic happened early in the fourth quarter when a rally from Robinson swung the home side’s lead towards the visitors.
As Bam Adebayo held the ball near the top of the sideline, Robinson curled up on a Vincent screen in the left corner. In Miami’s last three possessions entering this game, Robinson had connected on a pair of 3-pointers and a driving layup, so Denver was reasonably concerned about his cut, and Bruce Brown and Christian Braun stayed with him. The result was an open Vincent 3 to give Miami the lead.
On the next possession, Miami performed the same screening action in the corner, but this time, after learning their lesson, the Nuggets kept a defender with Vincent and only sent Braun to chase Robinson. But the rookie was a bit slow to navigate the pick, which gave Adebayo an easy pass to the Robinson Cup for a layup. An eminently memorable medium cup ensued.
Note the passer on those two buckets, as Adebayo was terrific on both sides in Game 2, especially since he traded fewer shots (14 attempts in Game 2, down from a career-high 25, in match 1) for more facilitation. The Nuggets have yet to figure out how to fight Adebayo’s game from the top post – ironic, given how much they rely on Jokic to do the same for them – and the Heat seemed to generate a great appearance every time their center served as an offensive center. .
That, of course, means it’s Malone’s turn to adapt, and it’s time for the Nuggets to show they can steal a win on the road, too. But now they need win on the road, when before they could have won a title just by going undefeated in Denver. The Heat ruined that plan, as they so often did against so many other favorites throughout that magical playoff run.