DENVER — The comeback was eerily familiar. The Miami Heat implemented their confusing zone defense. Their shooters drained open 3-pointers. And their bench made plays.
The Celtics have been heavily criticized in the past week for their late-game breakdowns against the Heat, but they are not alone following Game 2 of the NBA Finals. After Nikola Jokic carried the Nuggets to an 8-point lead entering the fourth quarter, the Heat responded with a 15-2 run and boat raced Denver down the stretch for a 111-108 win at Ball Arena.
The Miami Heat are a legitimate championship contender, regardless of how inferior they appear on paper compared with the Celtics and Nuggets. They were soundly beaten in Game 1 after that emotional seven-game series against Boston.
In Game 2, the Heat withstood a second-quarter Denver barrage with Jokic on the bench and rallied from a 15-point deficit. This team is resilient. They continue to play the same way and they never lose their poise.
“Regardless of how the head coach feels, during the fourth quarter, our guys love to compete,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They love to put themselves out there in those moments of truth. Fortunately we were able to make a lot of big defensive plays down the stretch, and then we got a lot of contributions, which you’re going to need against a team like this.
And they battered the Nuggets, like they did the Celtics, with 3-point shooting. They were 17 for 35 from beyond the arc with Gabe Vincent and Max Strus combining for eight. Miami was a bottom five 3-point-shooting team during the regular season, but the Heat have flipped the proverbial switch, turning into a stellar perimeter shooting team.
And after a putrid five-minute first-half stretch where he was a minus-14, Maine native Duncan Robinson scored all 10 of his points in the final period, including a rugged layup where he flexed his slender frame after he was fouled.
“I surprised myself with the fact that I pulled that one out,” Robinson said. “That was not premeditated at all. That was a spur-of-the-moment thing. To be honest, I don’t get a lot of moments in the season to break that one out; so when you get one, you’ve got to try to take advantage of it, I guess. I feel like I play my best when I’m having fun, and I’m always going to try to be respectful with it but having fun and enjoying just this stage. This is an incredible stage to be on as a player. That is when you dream about, so it doesn’t make any sense to get here and not enjoy it.”
Meanwhile, Denver coach Mike Malone lamented his team’s subpar Game 1 performance despite the victory. The Nuggets didn’t play much better in Game 2. Jokic scored 41 points, looking like the best player on Earth with his array of wacky moves that look like an over-the-hill guy at Studio 54. But those awkward-looking shots fell through the hoop.
The issue is he didn’t have any help. Jokic scored 28 of Denver’s 51 second-half points. The Heat shut down all of his complements, including Jamal Murray, who was held to 10 points until the final six minutes. His pair of 3-pointers were too late.
He needed one more at the buzzer after Malone declined to call a timeout after a Denver rebound. Murray missed and the Nuggets didn’t deserve such late-game dramatics. They fell asleep in the fourth quarter and allowed Miami to take control with its relentlessness.
The Heat shot 68.8 percent in the final period. Their zone defense made the Nuggets passive, relying on Jokic to make plays. Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla was lambasted for not having his team prepared for the zone, but this defense is difficult to figure, especially when shooters aren’t confident.
Jokic was the lone Nugget to develop offensive rhythm. And the starters — including Jokic — are getting punished by their Miami counterparts. Four of five Miami starterswere at least plus-14. Jimmy Butler, who again struggled offensively, was a plus-3 but he delivered a timely 3-pointer to give the Heat a 6-point lead in the fourth.
Malone, never one to mask his emotions, tore into his team for lack of effort. Yes, other teams besides the Celtics appear to have effort issues against the Heat. He didn’t like his team’s energy and laidback approach in the opening minutes, and now they’ve lost home-court advantage.
“Let’s talk about effort,” Malone said. “This is the NBA Finals, we are talking about effort; that’s a huge concern of mine. You guys probably thought I was just making up some story line after Game 1 when I said we didn’t play well.
“We had guys out there that were just 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.”
The Nuggets are the latest team to be befuddled by Miami’s unrelenting style. They made uncharacteristic mistakes. They needed to be sharp at the finish but they played casually and timidly. Malone called out his team, knowing Miami has taken control with the next two games at Kaseya Center and starting shooting guard Tyler Herro potentially making his long-awaited return.
We have a series.
“I asked them, you guys tell me why they lost, and they knew the answer,” Malone said. “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. 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.”