You didn’t think they were going to quit … did you?
You didn’t think an 0–1 hole was going to break them … did you?
You didn’t think after dispatching Milwaukee, New York and Boston, the Heat were just going to roll over for the Nuggets …
Heat 111, Nuggets 108, and hey Denver—you deserved this. The pay-attention-to-us Nuggets spent two days reading flowery press clippings and thought they won something. The team that spent weeks screaming for respect went out and showed Miami none. The nonchalance Denver played with in the second half was positively Celtics-esque and now the kings of the Western Conference have lost home court advantage to a team that unequivocally believes it can beat them.
“This is the NBA Finals,” said a disgusted Michael Malone. “[And] we’re talking about effort.”
Embarrassing. Miami hit early, building a 10–2 lead before Malone could sit down. Max Strus made a couple of quick threes after going 0-for-10 from deep in Game 1. Gabe Vincent made shots. The three-point shooting that carried the Heat through the conference finals were falling.
Denver eventually found a rhythm. Its bench came to life. Christian Braun made plays. Jeff Green made shots. Bruce Brown, too. The Nuggets erased a three-point halftime deficit and went into the locker room at halftime with a six-point lead.
They should have stayed there. It took three minutes for Miami to tie the game. Bam Adabayo had six in the quarter. Vincent had six. The Heat have several success stories on its roster. Vincent is one of them. An ex-G-Leaguer whom Miami signed to a two-way contract in 2020, a month before the season stopped. The NBA saw a volume shooter. “A gunslinger,” said Erik Spoelstra. The Heat saw more. In Miami, Vincent reinvented himself as a defensive minded combo guard. In Game 2, Vincent scored 23 points.
“People severely overestimate what you can get accomplished in a day,” said Spoelstra. “And they grossly underestimate what you can get accomplished in a matter of months, years, when nobody is paying attention. And he's the epitome of that.”
Vincent was great. Adabayo was great. Strus was great. And Denver still had an eight-point lead entering the fourth quarter. Nikola Jokic, one of the few Nuggets players who didn’t think this series was a best-of-one, had 18 of his 41 points in the third.
Entering the fourth, the Ball Arena crowd was rocking.
And then the Nuggets rolled over.
A Duncan Robinson three cut the lead to five. Minutes later, another Robinson three slashed it to two. A Vincent triple gave Miami its first lead since the first quarter. “They are punishing you as soon as you make mistakes,” said Jokic. The Heat shot 33.3% from three-point range in Game 1. In Game 2, it was 48.6%. With three-and-a-half minutes to play in the fourth quarter, the Heat’s lead was 11.
“They came out in that fourth quarter with a huge sense of desperation,” said Malone. “And we didn't match that.”
There was no urgency from Denver. Jokic committed a pair of turnovers. Murray tossed up bad shots. Michael Porter Jr. (2-of-8 from the floor) looked out of it. Kentavius Caldwell-Pope launched himself into the landing area of Kyle Lowry on a three-point attempt then looked astonished when the referee blew the whistle. A Jokic-fueled rally in the final minutes gave the Nuggets a chance to tie at the buzzer. A Murray three-pointer rimmed out.
After the game, Malone didn’t hide his frustration.
“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,” Malone said. “This is not the preseason. This is not the regular season. This is the NBA Finals. That to me is really, really perplexing, disappointing.”
Said Murray, “It's defeating when you're giving up mistake after mistake, and it's not them beating you, you're giving them open dunks or open shots. That's tough to come back from.”
This is a series now. Malone warned reporters after Game 1—his team didn’t play well. Malone tracked 16 wide open threes Miami took in the series opener. They missed those shots in Game 1. They didn’t in Game 2. Now Denver will head to Florida to face a smart, well-coached team that has figured out a way to beat them.
“They exploited every one of our breakdowns and scored,” said Malone. “If we're going to try to go down there and regain control of this series and get home-court advantage back, we're going to have to outwork Miami, which we didn't do tonight. And our discipline is going to have to be off the charts.”
Indeed. Denver is better than Miami. But so was Milwaukee. And New York. And Boston. And it didn’t matter. What Miami lacks in talent it makes up for with relentlessness and near-flawless execution. And they get better from game to game.
The Nuggets didn’t take the Heat seriously in Game 2. Miami knew it. Hell, the Heat are fueled by it. “Biggest thing for us, we heard the noise throughout the whole playoffs,” said Adebayo. “Biggest thing for us, we had the will and we had the belief, and we keep finding ways to win.”
Miami found a way to win on the road.
To win this series, Denver now must too.