By: Sam Quinn
The Miami Heat have tied the NBA Finals at one game apiece with a thrilling 111-108 victory in Game 2 against the Denver Nuggets. Denver led for most of the game, and was in control after three quarters, but a 36-25 fourth quarter out of the Heat completed the comeback and tied the series. That gives the Heat seven comebacks of at least 12 points this postseason, more than the rest of the NBA combined.
It was a team effort for Miami, as Gabe Vincent led the way with 23 points, but Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo both chipped in 21 of their own. They needed every one of those buckets, because Nikola Jokic dominated them in the second half and scored 41 points in total. The problem? His teammates couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Jamal Murray contributed 18 points, but no other Nugget reached 13.
Now Miami is theoretically in control of the Finals. They only need to win their three remaining home games to clinch the championship, and they could get Tyler Herro back as soon as Wednesday’s Game 3. The Nuggets remain favored, but we’ve got ourselves a series through two games. Here are the biggest takeaways from Game 2:
Miami’s lineup change
Kevin Love didn’t play in Game 1 of the Finals. Not even in garbage time. It was an adjustment the Heat made against Boston, an opponent that struggled with the extra ball-handling and shooting that small-ball lineups afforded the Heat. Miami stuck to those smaller lineups in Game 1 and the Nuggets beat them comfortably.
So for Game 2, the Heat went back to Love. The raw numbers won’t do his performance justice, as he made just two of his nine shot attempts in Game 2, but his overall impact on the game was pronounced. The Heat won the 22 minutes that he played by 18 points and lost the 26 minutes he sat by 15.
Playing Love did a few critical things for Miami. The most obvious was that it gave Denver more size to contend with. Aaron Gordon scored 12 points in the first quarter of Game 1 alone because of cross-matches and lazy switches. The Heat were so small that any player Gordon found aside from Jimmy Butler was going to give him a mismatch. But not coincidentally, Love’s size near the rim cut off those easy Gordon points. He scored 12 in Game 2, but half of those came on 3-pointers. While Miami lost the rebounding battle overall, Love led the team with 10 rebounds in the game. His outlet passing was one of the few ways in which Miami generated any pace whatsoever.
Love has his weaknesses, and odds are, Denver refocuses its game-plan around punishing him in pick-and-roll and attacking Miami’s zone in Game 3. But he did his job on Sunday. The Heat looked like a different team with Love on the floor in Game 2, and it allowed them to tie the series.
The shooting gods giveth, and the shooting gods taketh away
Plenty has been said about Miami’s ridiculous shooting variance in the postseason, but Game 2 just added another outlier data point to an already ridiculous set. The Heat made at least 17 3-pointers in only four regular-season games. By hitting 17 of their 35 attempts from deep in Game 2, the Heat have now hit 17 or more 3’s in four playoff games. They shot 34.4% on 3’s in the regular season and are now up to 39.1% in the playoffs despite the absence of Tyler Herro, one of their best shooters. The Heat predictably lost Game 1 when they made 33.3% from 3-point range and won Game 2 shooting 48.6%.
Shooting variance has always impacted championships, but it’s typically a tiebreaker among two relatively close teams. The Heat have now ridden 3-point luck to home-court advantage in the NBA Finals. Yes, the Nuggets allowed far too many open looks in Game 2, and yes, Miami’s shooters were better last season than they were this season, but what we’re watching is completely unprecedented. No NBA team has ever gone from one of the league’s worst shooting groups in the regular season to one of its best in the playoffs. That has been the secret sauce behind Miami’s entire run. The Heat are making all of their 3’s right now, and there just isn’t much the Nuggets, or anyone else, can do to stop them when the shooting gods are on their side.
Turning Jokic into a scorer
The Nuggets aren’t a team designed to play one-on-five basketball. Role players like Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope thrive off of movement. Denver went 3-7 in the regular season when Jokic had six or fewer assists. They went 7-13 when he had eight or fewer assists. He was held to four or fewer assists only three times in the regular season. All three were losses. Well, Jokic had four assists in Game 2. Denver, predictably, lost.
To some extent, Jokic had to play more aggressive offensively. Miami went to great pains to make life more difficult for Jamal Murray, even blitzing him on occasion to force the ball out of his hands. None of Denver’s other supporting players are shot-creators, and Denver hasn’t gotten much out of No. 3 scorer Michael Porter Jr. thus far in this series. Jokic scored because nobody else was scoring. The rest of the Nuggets simply couldn’t adjust quickly enough to Miami’s defense, which shuffled between various zones and man-to-man looks within the game and within individual stretches. The Heat made everyone else uncomfortable.
But the Nuggets were the best zone offense in the NBA in the regular season, and nobody has slowed Murray down consistently all postseason. Denver will had adjustments for Game 3. But the Nuggets were the first team all postseason to really put Jokic in the position of needing to playing one-on-five, and it’s a type of basketball Denver is fundamentally not built to play. Once again, Erik Spoelstra is taking better teams out of their comfort zones.